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Progress toward the fantasy of an orderly Brexit came to a dead halt yesterday. Even though it was no surprise to anyone paying attention, the EU’s negotiator Michel Barnier pronounced the talks to be in a “state of deadlock” over the critical issue of the so-called exit bill. That means, as was widely anticipated, that the EU will not approve letting the UK start to address trade-related issues (included in “the future relationship”) next month, with the next window for possible approval after the December session.
It can’t be said often enough that even if the negotiations had gone swimmingly, there is no way for the UK to have an orderly Brexit. There are simply too many things that have to be addressed and even a very competent, deeply staffed government would find it well nigh impossible to execute. It would take a war-level mobilization of resources and nothing remotely like that is happening.
But even allowing for the fact that bad outcomes are a given, there are still degrees of downside. And the UK is now on a path to having the worst case be far and away the most likely result.
Even though Barnier and the UK’s David Davis tried to put the best face possible on this sorry situation, the fact is that virtually no progress was made in the August round of negotiations, and the September sessions appeared to manage the difficult feat of accomplishing even less. An overview from the Financial Times:
Officials familiar with the talks said there had been some minor technical advances but no progress had been made on more substantial issues.
By far the most substantial progress in talks over recent months has been made on the post-Brexit rights of around 3m EU citizens in the UK and 1m British nationals in Europe.
This week’s discussions, however, made no dent on the biggest outstanding issues, including the role of European courts, the family rights of EU nationals, some benefits issues and the administrative processes that will be used…
A possible deal over the “free movement” rights also did not gel this round.
Similarly, the intra-Tory cage match shows no sign of letting up. Hard core Brexiters demanded that May abandon the talks, as if that would accomplish anything. Pressure from business interests may eventually give the moderates the upper hand, but it seems unlikely to resolve the impasse any time soon.1 From the Independent:
In London, former Conservative Cabinet minister Nicky Morgan said there was a growing “sense of panic” among business leaders as the talks flirted with failure.
“Employers are putting in place contingency arrangements and they will have to start pressing go sooner or later,” she told The Independent.
She again criticised Boris Johnson’s recent setting out of Brexit red lines, saying: “Any mixed messages about our commitment to what was said by the Prime Minister in Florence can only be unhelpful in the negotiations.”
It was striking that the Independent felt the need to devote most of its article on the negotiation impasse to describing how unified European position was, including describing how some hoped-for support for the UK, like from Germany’s Manfred Weber, failed to come through.
And Labour is politely saying “no deal” would be a Very Bad Thing. From the BBC:
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “I think it’s quite shocking. We’re now 15 months on since the referendum and the government seems to have reached deadlock at every stage.”
He said “falling out” of the EU without a trade deal would threaten “a lot of jobs all across Britain”.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Brexit is coming unraveled on yet another front. The Great Repeal Bill has been postponed due to the considerable opposition to giving the Government a blank check to rewrite laws, in the form of relying on so-called Henry VIII powers. The justification for such sweeping authority is that a massive number of laws needed to be rewritten, and pretty much all of it was purported to be mere scriveners’ work. The Members of Parliament have identified plenty of cases where they find it necessary to limit the Government’s power. From the Financial Times:
The bill had been expected to return to the floor of the House of Commons next week for the start of eight days of detailed scrutiny, but that timetable has slipped as the prime minister’s team try to head off multiple rebellions.
Andrea Leadsom, leader of the House of Commons, said on Thursday that “some 300 amendments and 54 new clauses have been proposed” by MPs who had “concerns about the bill”…
“The Tories’ repeal bill is simply not fit for purpose,” said the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer. “It would give huge and unaccountable power to ministers and puts vital rights and protections at risk.”
And the rebels have the votes. From the Guardian:
Labour said it had identified more than a dozen of the 300 amendments that already have the backing of seven or more Tory MPs, theoretically enough to defeat the government.
In the meantime, the fact that it is becoming undeniable that a disorderly Brexit is a real possibility is finally leading to the topic being given some consideration. But as we saw from the napkin-doodle quality of the two papers on trade released by the Government this week, the little thinking that has started is still distressingly superficial.
Richard Smith forwarded an article that, while at a high level of abstraction, still gave a feel for the chaos that a disorderly or even its close cousin, a “hard” Brexit, would entail. From Richard North at EUReferendum:
…commercial access both to EU/EEA airspace and to third countries for UK registered airlines ceases to apply the moment we leave the EU unless replacement agreements are in place – something which is not going to happen if we leave without an exit deal. The thing the media and most others get wrong, however, is that British airlines will not be “banned” as such. Essentially, all but a tiny number of commercial flights are undertaken in controlled airspace, which no aircraft can enter without filing a flight plan. And without a destination or overflying rights, flight plans cannot be filed. Thus, UK commercial aircraft will not even be able to take off.
This is but one example of the potential harm occasioned by leaving the EU without a formal agreement. We have pointed out many more, from the damaging effects on Formula 1 to horse racingand even the hazardous area equipment market….
What is remarkable though is the seeming determination of the legacy media to downplay the effects of a “no deal” exit. This, from the BBC is a classic example, purporting – with the arrogance typical of the state broadcaster – to give us a “reality check”, telling us what “no deal” would look like.
As weak as ditch-water, all it will commit to is a worst case scenario “that could mean that planes would be grounded temporarily, and drugs could not be imported”. But no sooner is that thought lodged, then we are encouraged to bask in the “hope … that common sense would prevail”. Some kind of interim arrangements would be made to keep things moving, the BBC declares: “It would be in the interests of neither the UK nor the EU for chaos to ensue”.
This reflects my observation yesterday, where the implications of a “no deal” exit are so catastrophic that people simply cannot deal with them. They skirt round the potential consequences and either pretend they will not happen or that a last-minute solution will be found.
This must-read post goes on to discuss a report by the European Fresh Produce Association (Freshfel) on impact on new customs procedures on UK imports of fruit and vegetables, the majority of which are imported. The report used Spain as a case study. The first paragraph is from the Freshfel document, the second from North:
The port of Dover as well as the port of Rotterdam and the Eurostar-connection starting from Calais are very critical bottlenecks of EU-UK fruit and vegetable trade. Dover and other channel harbours is a very narrow transit port with a lack of parking and storage facilities. With newly introduced border controls, including identity check, consignment check and customs clearance, as well as potential backlogs, the sector is strongly worried on the potential delays and waiting times, which could be harmful to the quality of the product.
With no confidence that electronic systems can be introduced in time, or fully integrated, the sector is concerned at the potential explosion of paperwork. Each container from Spain at Dover might need up to 20 different phytosanitary certificates given the mixed consignments, as well as certification of origins for each of the product. And, bearing in mind that there are no inspection facilities at Dover, this could present an impenetrable barrier.
And bear in mind these consequences apply if a deal is reached!
In comments on a recent post, a reader linked to an August article in the Financial Times that pointed out that leaving the EU didn’t necessarily mean that it was leaving the EEA, and argued that “staying in the EEA is not a simple or necessarily attractive option for those who want a softer form of Brexit, but that it may be the only practical option the UK has if Brexit is to be done with rapidity.”
The wee problem is that staying in the EEA does not even remotely approach a remedy. As Richard North pointed out, the devastating impact on air travel occurs unless a replacement pact is in place. Simon Nixon explained the limits of the EEA as a solution to Brexit problems:
But could the EEA be a short-term solution to the U.K.’s Brexit challenges, operating as a transitional arrangement while the long-term relationship is negotiated? This seems far-fetched too. The EEA doesn’t pertain to the EU customs union, all EU free-trade agreements and agriculture, so it could only be a partial solution and would mean striking many other deals…. And the EU has been clear that any transitional deal must come under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice—precluding one under the European Free Trade Agreement court that oversees the EEA.
Brexit now looks like a car with all its wheels missing. Even with the application of a great deal of force, it is not going to move forward at anything approaching a reasonable pace, let alone the speed required to prevent disastrous outcomes for British citizens.
1 I confess to being at a loss to understand how Philip Hammond’s ploy of refusing to budget for the costs of managing a disorderly Brexit is either helpful to the moderate Brexit camp or responsible. The only explanation I can come up with comes from this classic scene: