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Stalemate?

“Michel Barnier has said Britain would get a better brexit deal if he were negotiating with himself”

— attributed to comedian Henning Wehn.

The sad thing is, the quip is probably true!  The real problems lie not between the UK and EU, nor even between political parties here, but within the governing Tory party.

I’ve been meaning to write most of this post – less the above joke – for a long time.  I think since last December, when they announced the ‘backstop’ agreement to the Irish border issue.  An agreement that was never going to be acceptable to the hardliners, and looked set up as vehicle for pushing blame onto the EU when the UK started to mess with it.  But if so, that looks to be failing, as it seems the hardliners eschew such a “double-cross them later” fudge and reject it now.

So what is standing in the way of an agreement?  At the core of it are two red lines:

EU red line: the integrity of the rules and regulations that protect our people and other things we care about.
Brexiteer red line: we must not be bound by EU rules: they stand in the way of trade agreements.

OK, that’s a bit abstract.  There’s exactly one trade agreement that’s at issue here, and (so far as I’m aware) just one set of EU rules that’s really relevant.  The trade agreement is of course with the US, and the rules in question are food safety.  Because the US red line that has prevented a big US-EU trade agreement over many years is their freedom to export to us a range of foods that are banned here.  I don’t have the expertise to say who is right or wrong when it comes to America’s wide range of genetically modified foods, chlorinated chicken, or beef pumped full of growth hormone (though I’d want to avoid the latter myself if I ate meat in the first place), but we’ll have to accept them if we want that US trade agreement[1].

So that’s the UK importing all those foods, now legally. And the US exporting them in bulk.  And with consequential issues: the US will want to prevent backdoor restraint of trade, so a US importer should have a clear case in law against a British supermarket that uses a labelling scheme (like red tractor) prejudicial to the imports.  And that’s a problem for British farmers: how are they to compete if we hold them to higher standards?  What happens to the countryside if we lower our own standards to help them compete?

The EU wants to keep them out.  It knows there will be smuggling (as with illegal drugs), but we must at least seek to minimise it: confine it to the margins.  In the absence of proper border checks, the only limit on smuggling is the capacity of transport links between Belfast and Dublin.  Hence the problem over that Irish border.

And it seems the EU really are insisting on the open border if we’re to have agreement.  They made concessions in aid of that at the outset: notably the declaration that the Irish border is a unique case, thus avoiding problems like the Spanish feeling the need to veto an agreement that would be unacceptable to them on the Gibraltar border.

Looks like stalemate.  Who will blink?

Mrs May has tried to deal with that by preserving regulatory alignment on goods – including of course food standards.  But the US lobbyists in her own party won’t stand for that.  So unless she can beat them, probably with help from other parties in parliament, that’s going nowhere.  And her compromise-attempt was wrapped in a package so convoluted as to present problems to more than just the hard-brexiteers.

Still looks like stalemate.  Who will blink?

What about the brexiteer proposal that technology can be a solution?  The only real question there is, why do our mainstream media allow such disingenuous distraction to stand?  Technology might serve to implement a solution, but that can only happen if and when there’s a political solution to implement!  Claiming it as a solution in itself is about as useful to that as supplying bikes to fish: its only purpose is to confuse the issue and throw a spanner in negotiations.  I consider the failure to debunk it comprehensively to be Gross Negligence on the part of the mainstream media.

[1] I wonder if that even need have been true if our politicians hadn’t made such a big issue of the standards?  If we could have honestly said to the US “our hands are tied”, might a maverick like Trump have moved his red lines (with, no doubt, some give-and-take elsewhere) in the interests of showing the world “look, we can have a trade agreement”?

DoS attack?

Government system to register to vote in the referendum gets overloaded.  Deadline gets extended.  Cockup or conspiracy?

News reports tell us the best measure of traffic they had was the peak of registrations ahead of last year’s general election, and they built the system to cope with many times more traffic than they’d had then.  Yet traffic surged way beyond even that ‘surplus’ capacity.  So while cockup is entirely plausible, it’s by no means inevitably the cause.

It is widely supposed that late registrations come predominantly from younger people, and that younger people are more likely to vote In.  So bringing the system down ahead of the deadline would favour “out”, while extending the deadline would favour “in”.  Overall my best guess would be they more-or-less balance – at least if the system doesn’t go down again.

Most campaigners on both sides seem to accept it’s just one-of-those-things.  But a few “out” campaigners have been remarkably quick to jump on it.  It’s gerrymandering (Ian Liddell-Grainger).  It could be cause for Judicial Review in the event of a narrow “in” vote (Bernard Jenkin).

Hmmm, cui bono?  Jenkin’s line of reasoning points to a vote-again-until-you-get-it-right scenario.  We have a motive: someone stood to gain from the system failing on the last day.  If the deadline is not extended, a chunk of predominantly-in voters are excluded.  If it is extended, they’re preparing the ground for judicial review: get the courts to decide.  A win-win.

A Denial of Service attack can bring any system on the ‘net down for a while, and is very easy to mount (buy yourself control of a million virus-infected PCs and have them all bombard the target system to overwhelm it).

Cockup or Conspiracy?  I anticipate some more evidence, albeit far from conclusive.  If it goes down again tomorrow, that signals cockup – unless someone could organise a new DoS attack remarkably quickly.  If it survives to the new deadline, it smells more of conspiracy.

Red Tape

Just heard businesspeople debating the EU issue.  Unlike most of the crap we’ve been getting from both sides, this discussion aimed to be somewhat informative.

It was chaired by the BBC’s Evan Davis, with a panel comprising two business leaders from each side, and a guest from the Swiss business community to bring insights from a prosperous European non-EU perspective.

The pro-EU panellists basically said what I’d expect: their businesses benefit hugely from not having to deal with red tape in their everyday dealings with the rest of the EU.  One of them was in manufacturing, and drew the contrast between just shipping something vs having to fill tedious forms for every item exported outside the single market.  Whether and to what extent brexit would affect her business surely depends on politics (of 27 countries), and if you take the Gove vision of out-of-the-single-market, hassle-free exports would look like an early casualty.  The other was in financial services, on which subject the most interesting observation came from the Swiss guest: Swiss companies have to establish EU-based subsidiaries to export their financial services!

The Anti-EU panellists were more interesting: their gripe was with EU red tape.  Between them they provided three examples:

  1. Data Protection rules constrain the first speaker’s business of direct marketing.  Hmmm, Americans in his line of business complain of that too.  Perhaps he imagines brexit will exempt us from rules that bind US companies doing business in Europe (even if lobbyists could persuade a UK government to adopt rules more spam-friendly than our current ones)?
  2. The other speaker is a financier, and one of his investee companies struggled with an inordinately long approval process for a new drug.  Well, he may have a valid point, but how could brexit help him?  Pharma research involves big investment (that’ll be why they needed a financier), and needs to sell into big markets.  So I would imagine their top priorities will be EU and US[2] approvals, regardless of brexit.  If the UK process departs from the EU one, that’s just more red tape and expense.
  3. A health-and-safety rule: executive office chairs have to have five legs/wheels[3] at the base to give them stability (yes, four swivelling legs with wheels really is hazardous).  Hmm, well, they all do have that, everyone in the industry works to that standard.  Is anyone realistically going to try and change it?  We can of course still get a four-legged chair without wheels.

So, that’s the red tape that bothers them.  Is there a developed country anywhere in the world without broadly similar rules?  Oh yes, the US lacks data protection, and one or two states[4] are safe havens for spammers.

A particularly interesting nugget came when the chairman asked the Swiss guest about having to abide by EU standards without legally having a say in them.  He replied that in fact swiss business does effectively have a say.  Like anyone else, they can lobby, and if they present a reasonable case for something, the EU is receptive to it.  One might almost conclude that only the Brits get obsessed with legal niceties over reasonable practicalities.  On the other hand, he also pointed out that domestic politics within any of the EU countries may get in the way of them doing any particular deal you might expect – and that the brexit campaigners are assuring us will happen.

[1] (footnote removed, I thought better of it).

[2] I wonder if the much-feared TTIP might help with that, perhaps with a streamlined or even unified process to get approval both sides of the Atlantic?

[3] I wasn’t quite clear on the details.

[4] Notably Florida, unless I’m out-of-date or misremembering.