Sunday, 19 February 2017

Brexit: threatening the peace?

One recurrent meme this week is that Brexit threatens the Northern Irish peace process. I can't help feeling that this is... complete bollocks. The settlement in Northern Ireland was never a resolution. We effectively had an amnesty and plied all the tribes with oodles of money to save them fighting over the same turf. Instead of jailing murderers we gave them gongs and political legitimacy. The whole thing was a bribe but to my mind none of the underlying issues ever went away.

The flawed assumption beneath it was that if you could bribe them for long enough then eventually peace would become the norm and should there be any trouble the fat cat ringleaders would intervene. Except that they are now viewed as just another corrupt political class divvying the spoils between them.The same old resentments are still there and all it takes is a catalyst to reignite them. Most likely if one or other tribe is seen to be taking a larger slice of the pie.

All we really did was purchase a fragile ceasefire underpinned by the delusion that EU membership brings rainbows and kittens. If it can fall apart so readily just by Britain leaving the EU then it's fair to say that nothing was really settled. Further still, if we do see border checks in Ireland, that will more than likely be a failure of the process by way of having an impossibly complex outer EU border.

There is no reason in the world why a specific agreement cannot be made for customs and border cooperation in Northern Ireland. All it need be is a legal instrument calling on the many mechanisms that facilitate existing open borders. It's just a matter of political will. The only obstacle to it is the legal complexity created by the EU. We are about to see if the EU prizes conformity to procedure over peace.

To me though this highlights the bankruptcy of the entire EU narrative that the EU has brought peace. Rather than ending the internal stresses and strains it has merely buried them and let them fester under the surface. It's the same mentality as the then Yugoslavia and could just as easily, when the chips are down, tear itself apart just as rapidly.

The truth is that sectarian thuggery never really went away. The media just stopped publicising it. Should it resurface it will be more to do with a Northern Irish political class who have utterly failed to do anything useful with the powers given to them having instead used it as a platform for self-enrichment. To say that the EU was underpinning the peace is just to say that the EU was financing the bribes. You can't possibly tell me that we've had peace because Irish on either side of the border have bought into the larger European identity. If it's not true for the English then it is certainly not true for the Irish. It always was a house of cards and Brexit will show just how thin that narrative really is.

It seems to me that those invoking the spectre of further troubles do so out of entirely dishonest motives, placing their remain prejudices ahead of the common good. What else but grossly irresponsible can we call it?

Friday, 17 February 2017

Sooner or later, you're going to need the experts


I should know better than to read The Spectator but it's worth checking for examples Brexit idiocy. One such example is from Spiked editor, Brendan O'Neill...
--"What he [Blair] doesn’t realise is that Brexit was a vote against this politics of ‘we know better’. Against this new paternalism. Against the Third Way outlook of Brussels and Blairism with its elevation of technocracy over democracy. Against the new oligarchies that have insulated themselves and their decision-making from popular opinion. Against the notion that politics should be done by experts rather than by the masses, by clever people in Brussels or Open Britain rather than by Welsh factory workers or northern housewives or Essex Man. The people of Britain have already risen up, Mr Blair, and it was against everything you stand for."--
The basic problem here is we're all stuck between the absolutism of Blair and the absolutism of Brexiteers. Most of the time the public are absolutely happy to hand over politics to the experts and technocrats. It's a fine thing to say that politics should be back in the hands of the people but what the hell do northern housewives or Welsh factory workers know about running a fishery or managing the trading of intellectual property rights?

We have technocracy because somewhere along the line civilisation became high tech, fast moving and complicated. Much of the "Brussels" technocracy is there to defend property rights and enhance liberties. You could snatch it away from the experts and put it in the hands of the people but the truth of the matter is that we'd be back to cavorting druids, death by stoning and dung for dinner within a year.

Half the problem is that for all that we might demand to "take back control", most people don't want control, would have no idea how to do it and have absolutely no curiosity as to how the systems work. You can try to get people to engage in the details but they won't. They don't want to know - nor indeed do the chattering classes such as Brendan O'Neill.

Anyone can write a rousing polemic. It's the laziest form of writing there is. Attempting to understand though is in a different league. Something most hacks can't be bothered with.

O'Neill has it that "A recent poll found that 62 percent of those surveyed think Theresa May’s recently outlined policy to Brexit — that basically we’re leaving and that’s it — is the right and respectful way forward. Blair is raging against the May approach, the approach the public backs".

Except of course that in this instance the technocrats really do know better. May has set about a Brexit that is legally impractical, economically suicidal and more to the point, completely impossible in just two shakes of the Brexit fairy's wand. The vast majority of the public have no idea what is involved and don't care either.

The big problem for Brexiteers is that, irrespective of who is saying it, Blair is quite correct in much of what he says. The benefits of leaving are largely illusory and is unlikely to achieve any of the stated aims. Certainly not if we're going to do it May's way.

At some point the whole thing will have to be turned over to experts as the UK statute book is rewritten by ministerial decree. Armies of lawyers will be going at it for years and at the end of it we still won't have this glorious absolute sovereignty - nor indeed does it look like it will be any more democratic.

Underlying the Brexit debate is a far wider debate about technocracy vs democracy, where greater democracy ultimately results in fewer liberties. Plenty have tried to square that circle only to have come unstuck when they delve into the complexities.

We can talk about "the new oligarchies that have insulated themselves" against democracy but before you can have any kind of intelligent debate you have to identify what those oligarchies are, why they exist and how to properly democratise them. Since it has all been framed as a rejection of "meddling Brussels bureaucrats" we cannot even get close to a reasoned or informed debate.

Far from liberating us from bureaucracy, Brexit will send it into the stratosphere. In order to make good of it you first have to master it and make an attempt to to steer the outcomes. But to do that would require a little more engagement than writing tub-thumping tirades. The fact that our politico-media class prefers this kind of self-indulgence is a goodly part of why we are where we are.

There comes a point where railing against technocracy becomes anti-intellectualism - the prizing of ignorance over knowledge. That actually spawns a snobbery and hubris of its own - one that defines the Vote Leave establishment. When it comes down to it, pulling the plug on the most sophisticated market system ever devised without a plan, for entirely ideological reasons, on the say so of a slender majority is, morally, not all that far removed from cooking up dodgy dossier and invading Iraq.

In 2003, YouGov conducted 21 polls from March to December asking British people whether they thought the decision by the US and the UK to go to war was right or wrong, and on average 54% said it was right. Had there been a referendum, would Mr O'Neill have a newfound bloodlust? O'Neill is conveniently forgetting that Blair enjoyed a landslide victory thanks to the same Welsh workers and Essex men.

Don't expect to "take back control" of fishing


The Guardian gleefully reports this week that UK fishermen may not win waters back after Brexit. The wider media are framing it as though fisherman are to be sold down the river once more.

Much of this comes down to a question of how you break up a forty year old system, how we negotiate quotas and the legacy contracts in the current framework. It's not a case of reverting things to how they were before since much has changed in policy, public attitudes and technology.

Firstly, to look at this objectively, you have to sweep away the misty eyed narrative of "UK fishermen" being the plucky underdogs. If you're operating even a medium sized boat you're dealing with assets in the millions and you'll be dealing with quite wealthy skippers using Filipino labour, paying as little as they can get away with.

Worse still, fishing is still one of the most corrupt industries going. European boats are well known for flouting visa rules to employ Filipinos. Half the problem is that you just can't get Europeans to do the job. It's back breaking work, extremely dangerous, and the pay is not what it was given the availability of cheap labour. Fishing is now a fully globalised industry.

The way things work these days is that some boats may be UK registered but rather than landing a catch, they will transfer it to a fish processing vessel, where the fish will be packed in ice, flown to the far east for further processing and then flown back into Heathrow. Your "locally caught" fish might well have been halfway around the world before it ends up on your plate.

All of this has to be regulated and enforced, being mindful that consumers are now a lot more discerning and want to know that fish come from sustainable sources. Ocean floor dredging is a massively destructive form of fishing and it destroys breeding grounds. It needs to be heavily policed. What this means is that for an industry worth less than a billion to the UK economy, it has to have a disproportionate, resource intensive enforcement regime, where there is complete sense in splitting the bill.

The short version is that anyone who thought that UK boats would be awarded all the quotas for UK waters was deluding themselves. We can "take back control" but what that means is we take on all the costs as well.

Chances are that the government will do the math and negotiate continued associate membership of the Common Fisheries Policy in exchange for certain market access. There will likely be a sense of resignation that designing a new system comes at considerable cost for very little financial gain. The media will call it the great Brexit betrayal, and I rather expect negotiators will give on fishing just to save more lucrative sectors.

More to the point, though the CFP system is not a perfect system, it is at least a system. No government is in a hurry to unpick a system for its own sake. Furthermore, a lot of the governance is now superseded by international conventions whereby "taking back control" does not necessarily give us the legislative freedoms we might expect.

I think we can expect only token moves for the time being. I rather expect what was done in the 1990's is irreversible and never again will we see a large British fleet crewed by British fishermen. Give it fifty years and I will be surprised if fishing boats are crewed at all. Presently the system practically runs on slave labour involving a lot of trafficking and crew abandonment, and as we step up global measures to crack down on it we will see moves toward removing the human element. That much won't be a bad thing. There is something especially heartbreaking about loss of life at sea.

This is will likely end up as a huge political row as expectations have not been managed well. A lot of the old boys in the industry are expecting a reversion to times when British boats fished British waters. That model, corrupt as it was, was obsolete many years ago and though it was a tragedy to put an end to centuries of tradition, the deed is now done and there is no putting the genie back in the bottle.

Whatever happens, much of the system will need to stay as it is. These days, with an increased focus on combating food fraud and illegal catches, employing the very latest DNA testing, criminal activity in the industry is a lot harder to get away with. It is still rife though and lawbreaking is commonplace. Fishermen are notoriously relaxed about the law and there is only so much authorities can do. It depends on a web of international cooperation and without a good deal of political will and considerable competence there is not a lot of point taking a wrecking ball to the system.

We will likely hear a lot of special pleading from the industry but no-one should be under any illusions. There is a lot more to "taking back control" than is immediately apparent, and sadly, it is not the political priority it once was. We can expect the government to prioritise white collar jobs and those in the automotive sector. When it comes to fishing, we might very well discover that without a Brexit plan, what is done is done.

Brexit: all at sea


If you look at any of the regional trade blocs or multilateral agreements between nations, you find that a central pillar of them is industry and market surveillance and information sharing.

In the maritime sector alone this extends to illegal fishing, drug smuggling, people trafficking, piracy, ecological monitoring and terrorism. Effective and efficient monitoring is needed in order to shape policy. Your overall national picture is only as good as your information sharing. None of this comes for free. Where you have cooperative ventures, many of them have central authorities and the longer they have been in operation the more your own domestic law gives them legal effect. Pulling out of them, as indeed Mrs May proposes means also turning your domestic law into meaningless gibberish.

In the case of the maritime sector there are a number of global agreements whereby the EU has incorporated the rules so that we don't have to. We simply refer to EU systems and our status as a signatory is assumed. To give legal effect to them we will need a complete re-write of our own laws.

The problem there is that you can't really do that until you have established whether or not you are going to continue using shared systems by way of a cooperation agreement - and what legal status that has - and whether it grants any rights to a special court like the ECJ.

Put simply, there is no way to unplug without unleashing chaos. This means we will, assuming we get permission, stay as part of the EU until such a time as we can make a seamless transition.

We have heard ministers and MPs demanding a sunset clause on any transitions but how do you even begin to put a date on such things without having an idea of cost and scope. Even if we can do it, we still have to finance it.

When you multiply this dynamic across the 57 policy systems it rather looks like we will be lingering in the EU for years. Taking back control then starts to look like an utterly meaningless mantra - not least when you international obligations look very much the same as your existing EU commitments.

This is where Mrs May is in for a series of major humiliations as this government has yet only a very shallow understanding of the issues and the whole thing will rapidly become a farce.

Part of the reason for this is that we have transferred so many areas of governance that we are institutionally under-equipped for any such undertaking and have entered into agreements which were pretty much designed to harvest powers from nation states. Taking them back is no easy feat. Harder still when in many areas there is slender justification for doing so.

For the moment, much of the debate is tied up in comparatively trivial matters centred around free movement of goods. But this doesn't even scratch the surface. All of it works on the basis of complex regulatory systems backed up by IT systems, some of which are shared, others owned entirely by the EU. You cannot pull out unilaterally without trashing the whole system and consequently the trade that goes with it.

By now it has dawned on just about everyone that there is zero chance of quitting the EU in just two years, or even agreeing a framework for leaving. We are faced with either accidental Brexit or a humiliating climbdown when the process hits the rocks.

The only system that gives legal effect to all the EU regulatory bodies and authorised agencies is the EEA. That would, at the very least, dramatically reduce the number of domestic laws that have to be rewritten. This is what the government refuses to acknowledge.

I still think the government may well be forced to maintain single market membership. The only other way to do this is to hatch a bespoke agreement which will likely take years - when all the while we remain in the EU. This will be a massive embarrassment for May who has repeatedly told us she can wrap it all up with a wave of the Brexit fairy's wand.

Whether or not she is stupid enough to walk away from the table, we do not know. We also do not know if the EU will lift a finger to stop a catastrophic Brexit. Supposing we are being generous and crediting Mrs May with half a braincell, we are still looking at a giant mess to sort out. It will soon become clear that she is out of her depth and that her Brexit ministers have utterly failed. It will get very ugly, very quickly. This is what you get when governments surrender powers that were not theirs to give away.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

It's time we had some Brexit honesty

The closer you look at EU integration the more it would appear that it is irreversible. The EU has a singular talent for accumulating powers in such a way that they can never be fully restored without inflicting considerable damage. I saw film a while back about a climber who got his arm stuck in a rock and was faced with either staying put and slowly starving to death or carving his arm off with a pocketknife. I cannot think of a better metaphor for Brexit.

In our case though, should we sever the arm, we may bleed to death. How we make the cut and where is what matters. For that reason the UK must negotiate a wholly different relationship. Theresa May has it that we will not seek "partial membership of the European Union, associate membership of the European Union, or anything that leaves us half-in, half-out". Yet the closer you look, the more that seems unlikely. We most certainly will be half in, half out and we most certainly will be paying substantial sums for continued cooperation.

Mrs May will need to come clean about it sooner or later. What that means is we need a governing mechanism for that half in, half out status. It will need safeguard measures and opt outs and that's not going to come without a price tag. Since the government has spurned the one mechanism designed for these very ends, the EEA, we have embarked upon a journey with no known destination. All we know for certain is that Brexiteers are going to be disappointed. Fully escaping the EU's gravitational pull may prove impossible. It's time we had some honesty from this government.

My friend David


Early in the week I learned that my good friend David S Tails had passed away following a period of depression. I am deeply shocked. As to the direct cause, I await confirmation.

I rather expect his recent condition was a contributing factor if not the cause. For those who knew him, I don't want anybody feeling at all guilty for any reason. The last time I saw Tails he was quite insistent that he was "nobody's project". He gave me a very stern glare to butt out when I confronted him about recent behaviour. Whatever he was going through he was determined to handle it alone. Over the last year he has been increasingly distant. I had to respect his wishes.

With depression it is quite normal to go to ground to fight ones own inner demons alone. On the occasion I last called at his house he was dazed and distant, looking gaunt. He later told me he was putting weight back on but there was no outward sign of this. He was increasingly private about it.

Fairly regularly he would come with me for a day trip out in the car. The last time I think was Birmingham where he seemed his usual self. It was a good day. I believed he was fighting his way out of his hole. Depression though is an unpredictable thing. Sometimes you go into the cave to fight the demons and the demons win.

I was due to see him just before Christmas when our friend Toby was in town. He didn't show up, nor did he make any effort to get back in touch. That's normal though. He's never been that reliable with social commitments. I'm certainly not alone in leaving him to his own devices in the expectation he would resurface when he was ready. I spoke to him very briefly just four weeks ago so I at least knew he was alive and responding to people. I'd seen that he was out and about so I saw no reason to be concerned.

In his low moments you could see a man who had lost his way. He was lonely, sad and was not looking after himself. I don't know for sure how he was sustaining himself. He hadn't been working for some time. It's possible he was being frugal with redundancy money. That I know of he was not a big home drinker and lived a very austere lifestyle. He didn't really do technology or smart-phones. He was a make do and mend sort of person. He was a man out of time. He never looked more at home than in a friend's kitchen which has not been updated since 1950. Still, he didn't take very good care of himself. He lived in squalor even by my standards.

Tails is not the first of my friends to die alone this way. It seems to be a thing these days. Intelligence is as much a blessing as a curse. There was real depth to Tails.

I would try to get him to talk, but mostly he was a good listener. He would let me ramble for hours which makes me wonder if at some point I should have shut up and listened to him. But then we did talk about him. We tried to get to the bottom of it but he was not a man who was going to do himself any favours. Most of us don't I guess. We are all ultimately defined by the things we do to kill ourselves.

According to Toby, Tails was updating his CV just recently with a view to going back to work. I think he was at a loss as to what he was going to do. He grumbled about his old job but I think he found it interesting. I think that left a big hole in his life. He seemed to enjoy the first few months off but that's when he started to decline.

In the end he was surrounded by many good people who knew him well and loved him. He had a rich and varied social life. Enviably so. Plenty of people would have done anything for him but as with anybody, you can't help people unless they want help. You cannot force it on them. I did on occasion try, but ultimately you cannot live other people's lives for them. Tails made is quite clear that I wasn't to interfere. He was quite adamant. As far as he was concerned his depression was his business alone.

As I write this I am presently numb with shock, but at the same time not altogether surprised. I always knew this is how it would go. Just seems too soon. What I do know is that he leaves a very big hole. I depended on Tails a lot. Very few people understand what I do or why I do it, least of all me, and I don't think Tails was even bothered. He would just make space to listen to me blather on. But also, he would force me to try new things and show me new places. I have been in Bristol just short of ten years and most of what I know about Bristol, and all its hidden secrets, is through Tails. His world was very different to mine but I am very glad to have seen inside his Bristol.

On those day trips of ours we would end up in some far flung places and we would marvel at the unexpectedness of it along with the absurdity of our friendship. In many ways we had absolutely nothing in common. What we mainly shared was the love of a decent ale and a nihilistic streak a mile wide.

Being a man not inclined to plan and absolutely incapable of organising anything in advance, I tend to live each day as it comes. The thing I value the most is those days when I can get out to the coast or the countryside just to get away from it all. They are always good days but it was always good to have Tails along. I'm sure he wasn't the least bit interested in my military history lectures but he was always up for road trip. He was a hopeless navigator and very often a complete space cadet. It would really get on my nerves. He did have a singular talent for testing my patience.

What I enjoyed the most was seeing what he found interesting. He would pay attention to all the things I would generally ignore. We would always find a retro shop or something obscure that would catch his attention. He had an interest in vintage obscurities - and he was one who would always inspect any restaurant menu in full. There was a man who knew his food. He would stop me ordering the usual steak and chips and make try other things.

Mostly though we shared a very dark sense of humour. He had a very bleak outlook and he knew bullshit when he saw it. It was always interesting to see the contrast between his public face and the person he was around me. Most knew him as an energetic life and soul of the party. I didn't really involve myself in his social life but I see from the photos that he enjoyed horseplay and goofing around. He was an accomplished swing dancer and compère act. That though was not the man I knew. I knew him as a quiet and private man. He was often contemplative. Some Saturday mornings we would go out for breakfast and a coffee somewhere and actually say very little at all.

Then there were the times when he would suggest something out of the blue where we would end up walking around an abandoned factory in the middle of the night in the pitch black. He was driven by an innate curiosity and that is what I found most appealing. And for a self-confessed mardy bastard he was far more interested in people than I.

We didn't see each other all the time. Months would pass where I saw nothing of him at all. I think that was normal for him though, but over the years we cemented a close relationship and I have many anecdotes and fond memories. I am certain that Bristol is now a smaller place for his loss and things just won't be the same. Somehow a night out didn't feel complete if Tails didn't show up. I am sure that for many, his further absence will have the same effect. Already my inbox is filling up with messages of utter disbelief. I can barely absorb it myself.

David was witty, funny and thoughtful man. My life was certainly better for knowing him and I shall miss him. He was fiercely independent, intensely individualistic and not minded by the opinions of others. I loved that about him. He was a tortured soul but he was also generous of spirit and kind. One of the kind. He made time for people in their hour of need and he was patient. If you have one friend like that, treasure them.
___

I first met Tails in Leeds. He was using a friend's spare room for storage of his stock of clothes. He ran a stall selling Cyberdog clothing. I thought him an unremarkable man and my opinion of people who wore Cyberdog gear was not generous. From that point I was only barely aware he existed. Not until some years later when I moved to Bristol were we properly introduced. It was the evening of the Invisible Circus event at the old fire station in Bristol.

Toby was down from Leeds and we met in a pub in Easton. Tails was wearing an antique police uniform and sporting a bushy curled moustache. I had assumed this was all part of the act for later on. Little did I realise that it was pretty much how he looked most of the time. Nor did I realise he was about to become one of my best friends.

Quite obviously as a fellow Yorkshireman, sharing many of the same friends, we had a few things to natter about. His Huddersfield accent could strip wallpaper which made my own Bradford accent seem muted by contrast. He, though, was never ashamed of it. He was Yorkshire and proud.

I'm not altogether sure how we ended up hanging out so often. I think Toby had pointed out that I was an acquired taste and for friendship's sake he was to tolerate me. And tolerate me he did. Somewhere along the line we noticed each other's cynicism and general lack of compatibility with the world at large. Henceforth, whenever he sensed things were getting on top of me he would prize me away from my computer to go for a pint. It felt good to be remembered and included.

In my early days of Airbus, I barely knew anyone to talk to and so he would invite me to his friend's house on a Tuesday night where he would cook. He was an innovative and resourceful vegetarian cook and he liked to cook for people. Most of his friends were Bristol lefty hippy types. He found the whole scene quietly amusing and was never really all that persuaded by it. I think he just enjoyed letting me, a rabid libertarian, loose on a bunch of hippies and socialists and watching the fireworks. Whenever such a debate was engineered we could rapidly clear a pub. Suffice to say that few of his other friends became my friends. This was of no concern to Tails. Never once did he judge.

But then that was Tails all over. He enjoyed people. He wasn't the judgemental sort. He was never especially political and he barely ever reacted to anything I said except with a whimsical "aye lad!". I would often tag along whenever he went out and about. Through him I was introduced to the Bristol street art scene and the many pop-up cafés. I felt like every excursion was an episode of Louis Theroux. I often wondered what I was doing there and so did his friends. It was a most unlikely friendship.

There was one time I persuaded him to come to a warehouse party in London. We set out early with a view to trekking around London. We ended up in the East end. We must have walked for miles. I saw a wholly different London that day. One that I would never have known otherwise. By the fall of evening we were both knackered. We drove around East end for a few hours, completely failing to locate the warehouse rave. We instead ended up in a techno club in Brixton. I wasn't all that taken by the music and Tails wasn't remotely interested. He fell asleep next to the speakers and shortly afterwards, so did I.

When we were finally kicked out of the club we got in my Landrover and attempted to navigate our way back to Bristol. This was before the days of sat-navs in cars and I have always been hopeless at navigating London in the dark. I entrusted the map-reading to Tails where it soon became apparent that we were heading more in the direction of Portsmouth than Bristol. By sun up we were still nowhere near Bristol and driving through rural villages in Hampshire, with both of us desperately tired and struggling to stay awake. I've only ever lost my temper with Tails once and it was that morning.

A number of our adventures ended up that way. In fact more often than not we would utterly fail in our objectives. Even a quick lunch meeting would often degenerate into an eleven pint drinking session, ending up in some highly questionable venues - even by our standards.

The one time he was most animated is one Sunday afternoon where we were out for a drive somewhere in rural Gloucestershire. I'd bought a gleaming new Audi and was keen to show it off. Characteristically, Tails was not in the remotest bit interested and proceeded to roll up a fag, dropping tobacco and pastry crumbs everywhere. We happened upon Kemble airfield, which was at the time host to the Bristol Aero Collection. Tails did not share my enthusiasm of the aeroplanes but the hanger was full of artefacts from the early era of BAC, including a number of old buses. He was fascinated.

It was those serendipitous finds that made these road trips worthwhile. Most of the time I would do the driving and the talking. He would sit and watch the world go by. Sometimes it was like he wasn't even there - but then that was reciprocated.

He was a man of many contrasts. He was not athletic nor sporty but when it came to dancing, the man came alive. He attempted to get me to join in one time but it's not my thing. I did note though that he was never short of an attractive young lady to dance with. How that man managed to remain involuntarily single beats the hell out of me. But then that was part of his complexity.

Tails kept very quiet about much of his past. In many ways I knew him only on a very superficial level. There were defining parts of his life that shaped him but he would never talk about them. He was a very here and now sort of person. I knew that he had lived in London for a time and had worked in what he called "the rag trade" and I knew a little of his family life but he had really made his home and his whole world in Bristol. He was well known and instantly recognisable and we could hardly go anywhere without him being recognised. He was something of a legend.

In that respect, his loss will be felt nationwide. Very often when he took annual leave he would go hitch hiking and sofa surfing all around the country. He wasn't one for travelling abroad and had no real ambition in that sense. He lived his own life in his own unpretentious and frugal way. He would go off to roller-derby, clown workshops or some electro-swing festival somewhere. It was that other world of his that I saw fit not to intrude on.

What you could say of Tails was that he was certainly a social nexus. I could go to a goth club in Edinburgh or a rave in London or a metal night in Bath and somebody there would know Tails. His life spanned a number of different worlds and if ever I mention I live in Bristol to complete strangers they say "You must know Tails then!".

I know many successful people. People who have succeeded in business and other endeavours. Tails though was not ambitious in that way. He was not driven to set the world on fire. But he was a success in his own right by way of having lived a rich and varied life touching the lives of hundreds of people. I never saw him as a loser. I envied his vast and rich social life. He was not taken by material things. He was mainly concerned with making a contribution to whatever he did. He would volunteer to crew events and cook for them. He would always somehow make himself useful - even if just by being there.

Toward the end of his life I saw him in some terrible states. I have seen him cry, as have others. He was carrying a heavy burden in his heart. There was something he was punishing himself for and I never really understood what it was. Depression is a cruel condition. Often there is no logic or rationale for it. It's just there. Incurable and corrosive. In that regard I hope that he is now at peace.

I find it difficult to end this with anything more than platitudes. There is nothing I could possibly say that will soften the blow of his loss. He will not be forgotten though and the connections people have made through him will be lasting and likely strengthened by his passing. A community will be in mourning this week. We lost one of the good guys.   

Sunday, 12 February 2017

This government is lying to us about Brexit


I've given most of my attention this week to gaming what an EU FTA would look like. Theoretically you could do it in two years provided that you were basically cutting and pasting the entire stack of Swiss agreements. There would have to be a pre-negotiated agreement not to argue about the details. In order to transition to it you would need a massive task force to reconfigure UK law to accommodate it. You would also need a massive domestic public information campaign so business could prepare for it.

I can tell you straight of the bat that this is not going to happen. Not in the history of the EU has anything ever worked that well. Not forgetting you need at least a year to ratify it. I have written at length about what might be contained in such an agreement so there is no point going over old ground.

What should be noted though is that this is entirely separate to the divorce proceedings of establishing ourselves as an independent WTO entity, sorting out the financial liabilities and carving up subsidy quotas. This is also and area where we can expect to see considerable bickering and outrage. Some of it is straightforward, some of it not and some of it will be made unnecessarily complex by those who don't understand it.

This is the bit that probably can be done in two years, again on the proviso that no member states seek to use the opportunity for levering commercial advantage. That could happen. It won't be smooth sailing. Further to this I expect there will be some things emerging that have thus far fallen through the cracks which have failed to be considered by either party. There is then the question of carrying over third party deals we have via the EU and whether the EU will recognise the presumption of continuity.

I expect there will be about forty or so key policy headings on the agenda which are split into silos and farmed out to negotiating teams. Given that the UK does not yet have a fully manned negotiating team we are going to see inexperienced negotiators who are not in command of their brief fumbling around for answers from civil servants who simply do not know the subject matter. This then becomes a feeding frenzy for lawyers with any EU constitutional knowledge. Filleting EU law is not a job for amateurs. EU law has its own nomenclature but the meanings are not always constant and there will need to be referrals to the ECJ or examination of existing ECJ decisions.

At this point most of what is returned to ministers to sign off will have to be taken on trust because there is no way our politicians have the breadth of knowledge or experience to scrutinise it in any meaningful way. Ministers will likely have to take position papers from Member States and refer them back to their own ministries. This will most likely interfere with the normal operation of government functions as senior practitioners in every department will be called to give in depth testimony.

A lot of this really depends on the quality of the preparatory work which I expect is thin on the ground and generally inadequate. The civil service is dogged by incomprehension and complacency - along with internal politics.

The good news is that the divorce settlement can be agreed on without referring to back Member States as it is all bundled into the final ratification. Once agreed there is very little national assemblies can do to re-open it. More than likely there attention will be on the FTA aspect where they will seek to add in their own opt-outs and protectionist measures.

Meanwhile we do not know what will be the result of the French and German elections and what the revised positions will be. That could delay proceedings significantly and reduce negotiating time. Worse still, as each silo is agreed it has to be put through translation services and circulated for approval. Some of it could be put to broader public consultation in the member sates involving unions and trade bodies.

The government says all this can be done in two years and then we're magically out of the EU - and not half in, half out. This tells us one of two things. They are either being blindly optimistic by way of being astonishingly ignorant, or... they are lying to us and have something else in mind. Possibly both.

What troubles me is that the stock answer to any genuine question appears to be "fuck you" so we know little of what the government does actually know and we don't know if it has a plan A let alone a plan B. This really is mushroom management. All we can really do is contemplate the ifs.

As you know I am not impressed with the Brexiteers and MPs are generally under-informed. The only glimmer of understanding I have seen is from Nick Clegg and Ken Clarke - which is pretty horrifying. If they are taking select committee evidence at face value then we are up a certain creek.

I know I am prone to excessive pessimism but even being as fair as I can, I do not see that the government has a handle on this and I can see this process falling apart very quickly. We're under-resourced for it, under-equipped intellectually and the process at the best of times is bureaucratic. This kind of inertia has been overlooked. Put simply, the government is not being honest with us even if they do know what they are doing.

By now I have a good palette of expertise to draw from. There is very little expertise from the leave side as they are more concerned with the destination than the process, and from everyone else I get the impression that nobody serious thinks the government has a handle on it. I do not see this going well and I do not see anything in the government's white paper that is even remotely realistic.

Brexit does not make a complex world any simpler


A point that is less understood about Brexit is that a simpler relationship with the EU does not make the law any simpler. We could negotiate a free trade deal according to the wishes of Brexiteers, however that FTA will be no small undertaking. Anything we export to the EU (or indeed anywhere) will have to conform to global standards. Even as a baseline that is a considerable body of law.

At present we have our own means of supplying proof of conformity but unless we negotiate a mutual recognition agreement on conformity assessment then EU importers are obliged to clear goods. Naturally the absence of such adds considerable costs and delays.

So, in order to maintain present free trade conditions we are already looking at one device up from the base level FTA. But then we also wish to maintain existing landing rights at airports which means some kind of buy-in to the EU aviation rules. And then there's all the other systems from food safety to space policy, including Galileo. There are several major areas of policy where withdrawal requires a domestic legal device in order to retain some degree of compatibility.

In effect we are looking at a complete reconfiguration of the domestic statute book, removing references to EU authorities and agencies and replacing them with our own. This then creates yet another intricate web of laws, exemptions and complexities. We're not simplifying anything.

Further still, should we wish to maintain equivalence and consequently market participation, we have to ensure that our systems keep pace with theirs. In this we can express an opinion but the EU is not obliged to take into account any of our views and so if EU law changes then ours must adapt accordingly.

So in many respects Brussels will still be calling the shots. For sure the rules and regulations may well be derived from global bodies but the systems regarding their administration, and with regard to its own borders, competence belong to them entirely. The UK cannot be the ultimate arbiter on compliance in respect of many laws. This is up to the commission and/or the ECJ.

In that regard there is never going to be a time when Brussels is not influential in our law-making - except that we will be reactive rather than part of the architecture. This is why it would be better to be part of Efta so there is at least a co-determination mechanism.

The concern among Brexiteers is that we would more than likely end up stuck in EFTA-EEA resulting in the indefinite docking of the UK to the EU acquis in the EEA. I guess my response to this would be who cares? The EEA agreement has its own system of annexes whereby we can unilaterally invoke safeguards and opt outs, as is now standard for all major trade agreements.

The point about the EEA is that the mechanism for continuity of trade is a bilateral process under constant review. Not so with an FTA which remains pretty much set in stone unless you have an arbitration system. The government doesn't seem to think we need one because the Brexiteers don't actually know anything about trade. Or that is how it would appear. The danger there is that we end up with an unworkable agreement where we have to make considerable concessions just to persuade the EU to come to the table.

But then let's be generous and assume this reality will dawn on our Brexiteer ministers. That is then another system on top of a system. A simple trade deal this ain't. And this is without touching on any transitional agreement. So what we then find is that though we haven't wedded ourselves to the EEA acquis, we still have a large and complex body of law dedicated to relations with the EU and no free hand in it.

The real world implications of this is that industry has to adapt to a wholly new legal framework which ultimately makes trade more complex than it already is, using a system designed to give us market access that we already had. This really is Hotel California stuff.

So the questions that really need to be asked is what the government hopes to gain by negotiating a free trade agreement from scratch and just how much extra sovereignty would it gives us that we would not have as part of the EEA? What I continue to suspect is that we will end up cutting off a degree of market participation only to spend the next decade haggling to get it back - and since we will likely maintain a liberal degree of EU trade cooperation, all we have to haggle with is concessions on freedom of movement - or make threats to close down access to City financial services - which is not in the least bit in our interests.

At this point, an FTA doesn't look like it's worth the trouble only to end up back where we started. The Brexiteers have it that cutting ties with the EU makes it more possible to do deals with the rest of the world, but our international obligations oblige us to include international regulations and standards and this will eventually include World Customs Organisation conventions on border systems and databases. The same ones used by the EU in fact.

This actually points to the uselessness of bilateral deals. Since the same templates for FTAs are used throughout, where exemptions and reservations tend to be inconsequential and obscure protectionist measures (which are not altogether harmful) there isn't much scope or any point in deviating from the EU. This is largely compounded by the fact that several countries we have in our sites for FTAs already have agreements with the EU and in the same fashion have adopted their regulatory codes accordingly. We can enter bilateral deals but the foundations will be the same with little scope for haggling.

It is therefore surprising that hard Brexiteer, Peter Lilley MP, said in 2010 "non-tariff trade barriers that limit poor countries’ ability to trade include differing sanitary and phyto-sanitary regulations set by developed countries that impose prohibitively high compliance costs on developing countries. Harmonising regulations across developed markets would facilitate trade and lower the cost of compliance".

This is exactly what is happening. Looking once more at the EU-Singapore FTA we see "The Parties may agree on taking into consideration the glossaries and definitions of relevant international organisations, such as the CODEX Alimentarius Commission (hereinafter referred to as “Codex Alimentarius”), the World Organisation for Animal Health (hereinafter referred to as “OIE”) and under the International Plant Protection Convention (hereinafter referred to as “IPPC”).

These are your harmonised regulations and standards. When it comes to those "high compliance costs, this is what the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement is designed to address whereby Technical assistance for trade facilitation is provided by the WTO, WTO members and other intergovernmental organizations, including the World Bank, the World Customs Organization and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). In July 2014, the WTO announced the launch of the Trade Facilitation Agreement Facility, which will assist developing and least-developed countries in implementing the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement. The Facility became operational with the adoption of the Trade Facilitation Protocol.

The WTO Agreements contain special provisions which give developing countries special rights and which give developed countries the possibility to treat developing countries more favourably than other WTO Members. These special provisions include, for example, longer time periods for implementing Agreements and commitments or measures to increase trading opportunities for developing countries.

What this means is that there are already mechanisms we are obliged to use for developing trade where any attempt to trade away non tariff barriers would actually be undermining the system of harmonised rules in a race to the bottom that only leads to substandard goods, possibly counterfeit, reaching our shores. It's a zero sum game.

From where I'm standing it rather looks there is nothing to be gained by taking a wrecking ball to EU trade because it doesn't really free us up to do deals elsewhere unless we are taking up an aggressive posture toward the WTO rules based system, which Mrs May had already announced to the world at Davos that she has no intention of doing.

Effectively, what we are seeing reflected in the government's approach to Brexit is the classic Eurosceptic assumption that we are stepping out of a regulated EU sphere into an unregulated sphere. Such thinking is at least twenty years out of date. The reality of it is that now the rest of the world is caught up - or dancing to the tune of the EU, we have to think about trade in a wholly different way and that means utilising the WTO mechanisms at our disposal, investing in trade facilitation and working through the global bodies to enhance and improve regulatory harmonisation.

This is where Brexit gives us an advantage in that we do have a freer hand in approaching the global bodies, the right of initiative and a free vote. But even then we will have to build sectoral strategic alliances in order to build up a consensus - and sometimes that will mean seeking EU cooperation.

The short of it is that hammering out a custom FTA with the EU will not yield the benefits or freedoms expected of it and will come at the cost of considerably beneficial EU cooperation that we will have to fight to regain or compensate for. This is not to say there are not a number of Brexit opportunities, but it seems to me that quitting the EEA is largely pointless since we would have the freedoms we want. Leaving the EEA means paying a higher price than we need to for a deal that is harder to negotiate, considerably higher risk and ultimately self-defeating.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

The foolishness of Theresa May


The above cartoon surfaced in 2015. It is as relevant now as ever it was. Leave Alliance bloggers promoting Flexcit made a continual case that ultimately it would be the Brexiteers most likely to thwart Brexit through their insistence on demanding the impossible. Now it looks like the Brexit zealots will deliver one of two unhappy destinations.

Having completely disregarded the advice of the best research in the field, the government, guided by the Tory lunatic fringe, has set about Brexit with the thinnest grasp of the issues imaginable. When in the near future this is exposed to the cold light of reality the government faces a massive climbdown and a total revision in its position. If not, what we are left with is a trainwreck Brexit.

In the event of a trainwreck Brexit Britain will have to go grovelling to the EU for restoration of certain privileges and given the damage done the EU most certainly will exact a price. It may lead to the cannibalisation of some major national assets.

But then there is also the possibility that Theresa May will see the error of her ways and we see a more rational approach to negotiations. This though is only of small comfort. She has already blown it.

By insisting on an FTA, she is committed to a long and blistering negotiation and the implementation of any such agreement cannot go ahead until it is concluded. That will see us remaining under ECJ jurisdiction for some years top come. Before we can resume domestic competence we first have to build up our administrative capability and design institutions capable of doing the work. We have to completely re-write the statute book and put in transitional measures of our own.

In all likelihood, by way of complications in delivering such a transition there will be a number of delays leading to only a partial exit which will no doubt be bogged down in Parliament by bitter disputes. By this time I can imagine moves to oust Theresa May. By this time the credibility of the Brexiteers will be in tatters and the remain inclined Tories will retake the party. More than likely they will want to put the brakes on the process and will seek to convert the transition into an association agreement which pretty much leaves us taking all the rules but having no say.

It is ironic that both sides should have spurned the EEA as an option as that would have given us a trade agreement and full exit all at once while obliging the EU to negotiate with us in terms of rules by way of the co-determination process. The pig headed determination to have our cake and eat it will probably result in a far worse deal than the EEA with no safeguard measures and no means of renegotiation. Worse still we really will be half in and half out - possibly permanently.

Sadly, the EEA option is now closed to us. The Tories are determined not to see the merits of it and have neglected to do any preparatory work even as a fallback position. Consequently we could find ourselves in a rotten limbo whereby the EU leverages further concessions and sucks us back under ECJ control. Basically EU membership with none of the rights or access to the pseudo-democratic mechanisms of the EU.

In this we must point the finger at the likes of the liar Gisela Stuart who maintained throughout that "if you stay in the single market you have not left the EU". From all of the leading Brexiteers we have seen a continued opposition to any kind of pragmatism or realism and they have, through either ignorance or malice, continued to misrepresent the EEA agreement.

Even if the Brexiteers manage to fend off any attempt to stall the transition, in all likelihood we will end up with a grossly asymmetric agreement, where ultimately we are forced to reinstate freedom of movement in order to restore market participation. They will take us all round the houses to achieve nothing at great expense.

For the moment, all we have seen from the government is whimsical and misguided aspirations and there is nothing to suggest they have a grasp of the scale and complexity. They are working from some deeply flawed assumptions with no reference to what the EU may seek to achieve. It's a delusion the likes of which I have never seen before.

With such secrecy though, there is still room for a surprise. It could be that in the coming weeks May realises a shadow EEA agreement is her only safe bet and, like her predecessor, she will have to spin hard to pretend she is not making a u-turn. That, however, would require courage, humility, knowledge and competence. On that, I would not bet the farm.

Costing more and doing less


A few years ago now, my dad needed a heart valve replacement. As part of the recovery processes it was necessary for him to take regular walks. I would sometimes go with him up to the local park. What was starkly noticeable was how run down it is. It used to have a well kept Victorian greenhouse and well maintained tennis courts. There were flowerbeds the park furniture was well maintained. Not anymore. The playground is shabby and outdated and the benches are broken. They don't even sweep the leaves, leaving a sodden, slimy mess on the paths.

Many would be keen to leap on the austerity bandwagon but this is a result of years of neglect. Half the problem is that the people charged with running the parks do not care about them and do not visit them. As councils have been amalgamated and parish councils stripped of powers and funds, this kind of maintenance falls under estate management, largely to be carried out by private contractors. Parish councils are given pocket money to spend but this is not raised locally.

This is what happens when the link is broken between taxation and local government. We see this dynamic manifesting everywhere. My gran use to bitterly complain that the street furniture in Ripon was ripped up and cannibalised for spares in order to maintain the Victorian look of Harrogate. Little by little, our powers and our collective property are being robbed.

As this dynamic matures, these public spaces become merely assets on a screen and subject to annual budget shaving as funds are directed elsewhere. We have accountants making sweeping decisions over where we live and the things we value. They would argue that money has been invested in the parks, but the money has gone on security fencing and high durability anti-vandal street furniture making them more hostile. Little wonder that few wish to spend their time there.

That is not to say that vandalism is not a problem, but what it means is that maintenance has been abandoned and the procurement policy is to minimise upkeep costs. A downgraded concern. Gone is any civic pride or public will to keep fighting the battle against petty vandalism - and in so doing, the vandals win. Everything is on lockdown and designed for the convenience of the managers.

Part of this mentality is to freeze out the public form the running of public assets. There is no community ownership and consequently no relationship exists between the citizen and the environment. What we get is sterilised public spaces maintained for the sake of ticking a box.

While you might say that public parks are way down on the list of priorities, especially when front line services are stressed, this matters because it is symptomatic of how everything is run now. Local government, which is increasingly not local, is a voracious cash hungry spending machine that never seems to have enough, always costs more but delivers less. Rather than government by the people for the people we have government by call centre where "local" government is more akin with a facilities management corporate. The entire service element of local government is collapsing.

In this respect, as we have become more aligned with the US in terms of outsourcing, what does get done is done according to a procurement plan, where if it's not on the list it doesn't get done. This is highly visible in the US where you see street furniture in a worse state of decay with assets maintained only on an ad hoc basis. You'll see new playground swings in a park full of refuse and disused mattresses.

In this I am reminded of the US hit TV show, The Wire, where a hidden deficit in education spending sees the entire city services assets stripped and key services scaled back to a skeleton crew, including critical police units. By centralising funds and fund management, the cash is always directed at the most politically expedient to the neglect of everything else. This is how cities with billions in turnover can still rapidly decline and turn into slums. In that respect some US suburbs are simply beyond salvation.

Britain, however, is not there yet. We have a choice. Somehow we have to restore the public service ethos and reconnect tax collection and spending with the local community. We need real local democracy. Your local park may not matter to you, and given the omni-shambles unfolding elsewhere, it's a bit of an unusual tangent, but I have a strong feeling that if we fix what is really wrong with our parks, and the mentality behind the symptomatic decay, then we will fix a lot of other things in the process.

A Brexit failure now seems inevitable


I'm hesitant to make predictions. Whenever I do I make judgements based on logic and I often fail to take into account that government by its very nature is an irrational thing. My own calculations prior to the referendum led me to believe that the UK would probably seek to stay in the single market once they came to terms with the size and scope of the task at hand. My working assumption was that our civil service would sufficiently muddy the water and the Brexit zombies would be marginalised.

That hasn't happened. It turns out the civil service doesn't have a handle on it either and mid ranking officials dare not speak up in fear of being replaced. Consequently we have a government with a woefully simplistic view of Brexit, unable to grasp that they have not the time nor the intellectual resource to achieve anything close to what they believe is possible.

I had half expected parliament at some point to assert itself. That was a reasonable bet since Parliament has not in the last two decades ever shown any particular regard to public sentiment. With a remain majority in the House, one might have expected Parliament to moderate the government. It failed.

All of my working assumptions have actually been far too optimistic. You might even say naive. In that respect I feel I have mislead some of my readers. The notion that the government would eventually see sense could well have been wishful thinking.

It seems that only now we are a month away from pushing the button has the media woken up to the realities and even then they do not have a comprehensive grasp of the issues. The media in many respects is the dog that didn't bark. Or rather it went in for pointless incessant barking so that people just tuned it out.

Consequently it now looks like we are going over the cliff. There simply isn't time to negotiate a comprehensive free trade agreement. There is barely enough time even to ratify one. The only way to avoid a crash is to agree inside the framework of Article 50 to maintain EU membership until an FTA can come into force.

As much as that notion will be intolerable to our own government, what is often overlooked is that the EU doesn't have much of a clue either. We are assuming way too much competence on their part. Only when we get the verdict of Commission officials will we know what is possible and I guarantee the government isn't going to like that. A transition will likely mean extensive membership with all the obligations that go with it. It won't be a matter of obstinacy. It will be a matter of law and practicality.

At this point we need to watch out for May and her gang who will likely treat this like a dramatic showdown. We can expect theatricals for the folks back home. She will make empty threats of walking away only to be met with typically nonchalant French shrugs.

As it happens, I don't have any insight as to whether May is serious about not paying a divorce settlement. We have had some indication from Davis that we might but this is really a matter of law and contract whereby the EU will not be minded to haggle. May is pretty much offering up the same sentiment as Trump. "We're going to build a wall and they're going to pay for it".

It all really depends on how seriously the government is taking it. They have been told by their officials not to expect any serious interruption to trade should we walk away. There is a dangerous complacency at all levels of government and industry. Meanwhile, City economists who know little of systems and legal structures will flatulate about tariffs with absolutely no regard to the fact that the EU is a system of government and not just a trade bloc.

One of my working assumptions hitherto now is that if reality doesn't bite before we push the button then it will shortly after. I think possibly that is another assumption I will have to throw in the bin. The whole process could very well be a pathetic political circus that never gets down to the serious details. There has been little in the way of scoping and we have not seen any position papers except for some vague aspirational stuff. There are no contingency plans either.

It would seem that unless there is some kind of adult intervention, where the clock is stopped we may very well sleepwalk into a trainwreck Brexit. It will simply happen and nobody will have the first idea why. The remainers will bitterly complain and gloat, the leavers will stamp their feet and blame the EU. Ultimately though, the blame will lie squarely with this Tory government.

Though a trainwreck is something I have campaigned hard to avoid, I expect in the future I will realise it was daft of me to expect it would go any other way. In some ways though, I am mischievously looking forward to it. As much as it will obliterate the Tories, it will be interesting to see the multifarious ways the system implodes and how we will cope with it. The whole thing turns on an elaborate web of rules and systems within systems. If we unplug it at the wall then things will get very interesting, very quickly. Whatever it turns out to be, it certainly won't be boring.

Friday, 10 February 2017

A cut and paste Brexit?


As you know I am not given over to Brexit optimism. There seems to be far too much complacency in high places. Unless the government has an ace up its sleeve and an amazing plan they are keeping super secret then there is little room for optimism. Meanwhile the debate is now so hopelessly polarised that there is no possibility of a dialogue - and the government is not listening. I'm pretty sure the public don't want to know either.

The more we look into the technical aspects the more the worst case scenario looks singularly unattractive. Should Mrs May walk away from the table then we are going to have to use every emergency measure in the book. It seems pointless to even argue the case now. Everything from race horses through to nuclear energy now looks like it will be adversely affected.

This though does not enter consideration among the great and the good. Graeme Leach of City AM, for example, has it that "if we leave the Customs Union, we can unilaterally under WTO rules impose zero tariffs on imports". There's several problems with this which we need not go over. The gaping question however, is what do we trade with once we have voluntarily surrendered all of our defensive trade measures?

Leach asserts "The idea that we have to be in the Single Market, at all costs, is nonsense. Leaving aside the political reality that Brexit will require an end to the free movement of people, there is the added factor that EU law and regulation is a cost that applies across the whole economy". Except, of course, the costs of not complying with regulations are considerably greater. If you don't conform then you cannot export, particularly when it comes to animal produce.

Whichever way you expect Brexit to go, there will necessarily be a considerable degree of regulatory conformity. Looking at the EU-Singapore FTA, which is already seven years in the making, the basis for free trade is regulatory harmonisation. In just about every comprehensive agreement you will find words to the effect of:
The Parties may agree on taking into consideration the glossaries and definitions of relevant international organisations, such as the CODEX Alimentarius Commission (hereinafter referred to as “Codex Alimentarius”), the World Organisation for Animal Health (hereinafter referred to as “OIE”) and under the International Plant Protection Convention (hereinafter referred to as “IPPC”).
This largely echos the WTO agreement on Technical Barriers to trade which states:
Where technical regulations are required and relevant international standards exist or their completion is imminent, Members shall use them, or the relevant parts of them, as a basis for their technical regulations except when such international standards or relevant parts would be an ineffective or inappropriate means for the fulfilment of the legitimate objectives pursued, for instance because of fundamental climatic or geographical factors or fundamental technological problems.
Which is scarily reminiscent of text found in the chapter on renewable energy in the EU-Singapore FTA:
Where international or regional standards exist with respect to products for the generation of energy from renewable and sustainable non-fossil sources, the Parties shall use these standards, or their relevant parts, as a basis for their technical regulations except when such international standards or relevant parts would be an ineffective or inappropriate means for the fulfilment of the legitimate objectives pursued. For the purposes of applying this paragraph, the International Organization for Standardization (hereinafter referred to as “ISO”) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (hereinafter referred to as “IEC”) shall in particular be considered relevant international standard-setting bodies.
If we take the view that the UK seeks a comprehensive FTA from the EU in two years then it follows that it will comprise of a number of re-usable elements, and as the UK is a signatory of the WTO TBT agreement, the scope for deregulation on exports is somewhere around nil.

It is not yet known whether the UK seeks to replicate cooperation agreements with EU decentralised agencies - but if not, any FTA would need to negotiate recognition of UK authorities in order to produce proof of conformity. If, however, the government maintains involvement in EU agencies then in all likelihood that locks us into a number of administrative systems and the regulations therein.

Should we choose to abandon such agencies then we will need our own systems developed with reference to EU systems, probably in conjunction with the EU in order to maintain maximum trade comparability. That will create red tape and uncertainty of its own.

Where it gets messy is that any FTA with the UK will likely be a mixed agreement whereby Member States can secure their own reservations, blocking UK access to the EU single market. For instance, in the Singapore FTA we see various peculiar reservations along the lines of "Natural persons not having Romanian citizenship and residence in Romania, as well as legal persons not having Romanian nationality and their headquarters in Romania, cannot acquire ownership over any kind of land plots, through inter vivos acts".

To take another example, "Marketing of legal advice services is reserved to lawyers with a Danish licence to practice and law firms registered in Denmark. Requirement of a Danish legal examination in order to obtain a Danish licence".

Very soon what should, in a perfect world, be a straight forward enterprise, is bogged down in minutia and defensive measures which the Commission is no longer in a position to overrule given the recent precedent set by the ECJ. This is also assuming that any Brexit deal does not require ECJ rulings where a legal impasse is reached. What this means is that an FTA will not be completed in two years and Article 50 talks will need to carry over EU membership until the FTA comes into force.

In this respect if the UK wants a deal to be concluded at all it will likely have to accept the foibles of Member States lest the process drag on for years. The UK will have to accept that it will not enjoy the same level of freedoms and will likely have to deal with different strata of law for each member state according to the reservations within the agreement. And this is before we get anywhere near the ratification process where horse-trading could lead to considerably more concessions. This could see us lingering in the EU for years, depending on the shape of the transition agreement.

It is ironic that we should be leaving after the EU Singapore agreement has effectively torpedoed EU trade exclusivity - which was as good a reason to leave the EU as any. This now points to a future where the EU is unable to conclude comprehensive deals leaving it stagnating - while deals under way linger on in uncertainty. This raises massive questions on the future of the EU and its constitution.

Whatever happens, our obligations under international agreements and our Brexit FTA will have significant implications for our ability to trade independently of the EU. Given the nature of the FTAs the EU has with a number of other countries, containing the same regulatory obligations, any future bilateral agreements the UK seeks will be limited to peripheral issues. The scope for horse trading on regulation without going through the international organisations to reach multilateral agreement will be similarly constrained.

To my mind this all points to the obsolescence of the EU. While it is still influential in regulatory affairs, with every agreement it signs, control of the regulatory agenda slips from its grasp. As much as Brexit, and the exclusion of the UK financial markets from any future EU deals, makes the EU as a whole a less attractive target for third countries seeking a comprehensive deal, it would appear that Brussels is no longer the centre of the universe - and if we want to make progressions then we can't wait for the EU to complete ever more complex agreements. Given the high profile failures of late, it could well be that Brexit is the last comprehensive FTA the EU will ever sign - assuming we don't make a pig's ear of it.  

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Trade: muddled thinking aplenty


Brexiteers are keen to dream up fantasy trade agendas. CANZUK being one of the dafter ones. As much as they are impractical and serve no real purpose, what is often overlooked is the fact that other countries are busy with other things and so are we.

There are only so many trade negotiators, many of them presently locked into existing efforts or working toward multilateral objectives. Our whole efforts are presently geared toward Brexit and other countries have their own regional agendas. It's cute that Brexiteers think they would be willing to drop everything on our request to talk about an intangible alliance which, so far as I can see, answers no pressing questions.

As previously discussed, any trade policy really needs to be linked to strategic foreign policy objectives. Bilateral deals may offer some marginal improvements in the price of foodstuffs but with tariffs being fairly low, much of the saving are negligible and are nullified by currency fluctuations.

More to the point, bilateral trade deals assume that partner nations can actually supply the demand. Presently China is stockpiling ores from Australia and buying livestock in bulk from New Zealand. UK buyers will find themselves at the back of the queue as suppliers are in no particular hurry to open up new supply chains and certainly not with a country about to send its regulatory regime into chaos.

Further to this, if there were any silver bullets the EU would be at it already. The EU is aggressively seeking deals not least I suspect out of spite in the wake of Brexit. That will naturally comes with obligations that stymie any UK efforts to tinker with regulations and tariffs.

Meanwhile, if you listen to the diplomatic chatter at the WTO, the new religion is trade facilitation - which can mean anything from enhancing customs systems or governance measures to eliminate fraud and corruption.

One major global concern is pharmaceuticals fraud. US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has found that 69 of its products were falsified in 107 countries in 2014, up from 29 products in 75 countries in 2008 - a doubling of the problem in six years. Over 700,000 deaths per annum from malaria and TB have been attributed to falsified medicines and the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest in the United States estimated that counterfeits cost the global economy around US$75bn in 2010.

As much as this kind of criminal activity seriously hits all Western nations in the wallet it is very much one of the many blights standing in the way of development. If supply chains are known to be corrupt it deters investment.

The World Customs Organization (WCO) and the International Institute for Research Against Counterfeit Medicines (IRACM) announced recently the results of their fourth common initiative in the fight against fake medicines on the African continent. There were record seizures of 113 million illicit and potentially dangerous pharmaceutical products, which took place in the context of Operation ACIM (Action against Counterfeit and Illicit Medicines) in September 2016.

The number of seizures made in joint IRACM-WCO operations has now reached dramatic proportions, with almost 900 million counterfeit and illicit medicines seized at the borders of the continent. “Of the 243 maritime containers inspected, 150 contained illicit or counterfeit products". Staggering. And that's without looking at food fraud.

Cleaning up trade is essential to development, increasing profitability of existing trade and crucially slowing the flow of migration. In this, bilateral agreements between developed nations do little and contribute little to overall trade flows. Only by working with international agencies can we devise an integrated global solution. Such a system would have a number of positive externalities in that effective customs and inspections systems have benefits for other sectors.

As much as this will depend on good science, telecoms and IT, it will also require training and upkeep - which presents many opportunities for UK tech services. This however, can only come about by engaging fully in all of the global bodies and directing our aid spending accordingly. Reverting to mercantilist beggar thy neighbour trade policies will do little more than produce meaningless feel-good headlines. If Britain wants to get serious about trade it will have to move beyond seventeenth century Tory thinking. The world has moved on - and so must our politicians.

It seems there are provisional moves to make this a policy, which is the first glimmer of competence I have come across but whether or not they yet comprehend it must be central to any trade strategy remains to be seen. This is one thing that is largely not dependent on Brexit outcomes so this really is where the effort must go. It will probably be overlooked as Liam Fox's department goes barking after mediocre FTAs. Without a fundamental rethink, with a restructuring of BIS, DfID and the FCO (with the MoD), nothing very much can happen.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Brexit - a responsibility we cannot shrink from


Three years ago I thought I had a solid grasp of the EU as a whole, and a working knowledge of EU law making. That though was insufficient. It's only when you look at the systems and how they really interrelate do you really get a full picture of EU integration.

During the referendum you may well remember that running dispute of what percentage of law was made by the EU. I argued that such a metric was worthless since a domestic bill is far smaller in scope than the implementation of a directive which requires adopting EU law or making laws to an EU specification. As much as it is impossible to tell, a single figure doesn't really tell you anything - nor does it take into account that UK law gives recognition to EU institutions and authorities.

In fact, the one thing that has sunk in on all sides, save for the very dimmest of Brexit zombies, is that Brexit is complex. Remainers are rubbing this in with glee. But this rather underscores the leave position that the UK as a member of the EU is not an independent nation, is bound in what it can do and that real tangible power has been surrendered.

While you can say that in all this time parliament has remained sovereign, parliament has been all to keen to ensure that its own powers remain constrained and over the decades have signed away more powers without any meaningful public consultation.

In that regard, while I lament the Brexit shambles currently under way I must remind myself that had Britain voted to remain we would see a continued trend toward "ever closer union". And though those words to the uninitiated sound fluffy the real world consequence is "ever more integration". That means more power only ever flowing out of the hands of the people and beyond the reaches of democracy. Meaningful change is beyond our reach.

In this estimation we had already reached the point of no return. There is no untangling ourselves from this mess without doing considerable harm to our economy. That is why the means of departure is as significant as the choice to leave.

What we now find is that the system is so complex that our politicians, having had very little input in its creation, have only a very shallow understanding of it and there are few experts in the field who truly comprehend the nature of the beast. Expert testimony in front of select committees has been misleading and often flat wrong.

Between the collective ignorance of parliament and the wilful malice of hard Brexiteers the government now has a gloriously skewed impression of what lies ahead. Today Theresa May asserted that "As far as this Government is concerned we believe it is possible within the two-year timeframe to get the agreement not just for our withdrawal from the EU but also the trade arrangement that will ensure we have a strong, strategic partnership with the EU in the future”. Delusional is something of an understatement.

In the most basic terms we have an entire political order that has abandoned in entirety the real business of governing. Everything from trade to agriculture has been outsourced. This is why our MPs are the very least able to "take back control". Before you can take control of anything you have to understand it - and that's not happening.

Part of the reason is that MPs have been so used to indulging in trivia that parliament has become a hollow shell and a platform for moral showboating. It is why every self-respecting adult in the land despises Westminster and its inhabitants - up to and including our media whose understanding of the issues is in a similarly parlous state.

Therein lies the true cost of our membership of the EU. Political and moral atrophy. Westminster has become a shabby and devalued talking shop unable to focus and ill-equipped to tackle change of this magnitude. The damage cannot be measured in pounds or euros but it should be abundantly clear by now that we cannot go on like this - with parliament reduced to snivelling party hacks and narcissistic prostitutes.

Now that the provisional question of Brexit has been resolved we now face a steep learning curve in order to rebuild domestic institutional expertise. In this we must prune away the wastrels of Westminster and rediscover adult politics. That is not going to happen overnight. Sadly, there is a price to pay for our political indolence and it will be the ordinary voter who pays for their hubris.

If it is not yet apparent to you that Westminster is no longer capable of serving us just wait to see what kind of Brexit this parliament will deliver. We have already seen the feeble attempts at what they call scrutiny. More than likely the Brexit that Theresa May delivers will be all the proof you need that it's time for a clearout.

In this I do not accept that this is an argument for remaining in the EU because that lets the vermin off the hook, to continue playing their infantile and destructive games while Brussels does as it pleases - unwatched by either MPs or journalists. Politics depends on participation. For too long it has been engineered out of the process and in so doing it has turned us into passengers in our own affairs. Unless we the people take back control from the politicians then we sleepwalk into oblivion.

2016 saw the end of an era in Western politics. There are too many stresses and too many threats for the status quo to survive. Institutions and constructs developed for the postwar era no longer serve us in this age of globalisation, internet and unprecedented migration.

The power vested in these institutions has been abused and squandered and in the end have proved incapable of adapting or responding. That is why we need reform and that is why I voted to leave knowing there would be a price to pay.

The EU serves only as a comfort blanket for those still in denial over the need for change. I can even see why. The blissful indifference of political disengagement absolves us of our obligations as citizens. Free to do as we please within our shrinking and gilded cage. Sooner or later though, reality bites. The real world is closing in. Brexit will make us better equipped to handle it when it does. It is a responsibility we cannot shrink from and there is a lot of work to do.