Whitehall’s spending watchdog report concludes UK faces significant, unpredictable risks

The government has conceded there could be freight delays, more crime and fewer checks on migrants in the event of a no-deal Brexit, a critical report from Whitehall’s spending watchdog has found.

With just two weeks before the UK’s scheduled withdrawal from the EU, the National Audit Office has concluded there are significant, unpredictable risks which could lead to chaos at the UK’s ports.

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Commons leader claims MPs will back deal even though PM is yet to get agreement with EU

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, has claimed “the votes are now there” for Boris Johnson to pass a Brexit deal through parliament.

Rees-Mogg, a close ally of Johnson, who is responsible for legislation in the Commons, made the bold claim on the radio station LBC, despite the fact the prime minister is yet to secure a deal with Brussels.

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Negotiators understood to have agreed in principle to customs border down Irish Sea

Boris Johnson appears to be on the brink of reaching a Brexit deal after making major concessions to EU demands over the Irish border.

A draft text of the agreement could now be published on Wednesday if Downing Street gives the final green light, according to senior EU and British sources.

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Rolling coverage of the day’s political developments as they happen

The issue there is that a Saturday sitting is an extremely unusual process dependent on events, but the events that may require that Saturday sitting have not yet reached their fruition. And it is only after that point has been reached that it would be sensible to confirm what exactly will be happening on Saturday, but of course it will be my aim to bring an announcement to the house as soon as possible with that regard.

The Westminster refusal [to allow a referendum] is not sustainable.

We can already see the cracks appearing.

From ITV’s Paul Brand

BREAKING: Chair of ERG @SteveBakerHW leaves Downing Street after 80 mins saying they’ve had “very constructive talks with the government… I am optimistic that it is possible to reach a tolerable deal that I am able to vote for”. ERG are on board as it stands.

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Hindsight is a wonderful thing, sometimes used to unfairly criticise the past, but it also allows us to learn from our mistakes. During my 14 years as a MEP, I saw a number of mistakes which led us to where we are now in the negotiations. I list the main ones here, not necessarily to criticise or blame but in the hope that future negotiators will take at least some of them into account.

1. Viewing the EU as a free trade area

When I first became a MEP in May 2005, it was around the time that the French and the Dutch voted no in their referendums on the European Constitution. As MEPs reflected on the vote by the people of two of the most supposedly pro-EU countries, a leading German MEP declared that nothing must be allowed to get in the way of the “European Project” of further political and economic integration. When I protested that this was not what the British signed up for, I was told to read EU history.

Some British people complain that we joined a free trade area which became a political project, but ever since the days of Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet, the EU and its predecessor organisations have always had the goal of creating a political union, while the UK public debate has tended to view the EU in a transactional way as a free trade area. Indeed, one of my frustrations over the years were the British politicians of all parties (including Conservatives) who in Brussels would declare their support for the EU project or would not oppose it – but once back in the UK would use phrases such as “shared sovereignty” and talk up the benefits of trade with the EU. In all my time, the former Lib Dem MEP, Andrew Duff, was the only British pro-EU integration politician who had the honesty to say the same thing on both sides of the Channel.

2. Not asking for more than we wanted

One of the principles of negotiations is to ask for more than you want (as I suggested to then Prime Minister Theresa May via this 2017 article on BrexitCentral). When David Cameron went to negotiate the new relationship with the EU to put to a referendum, he asked for four things. As one of his advisors, Mats Persson, wrote afterwards, he was asked by an EU diplomat who told him: “In Europe, we ask for 10 things in order to get six, you ask for four things to get four. Why?”

3. A lack of preparation

Before any general election, the civil service prepares for the prospect of different governments, usually a Conservative or Labour government. Therefore, it was surprising that papers were not prepared for a referendum vote to leave the EU. In speaking to civil servants, advisors and politicians, it seems that there was a concern that any papers preparing for a Leave vote would be leaked and inflame a furious debate between those who agreed with the conclusions and those who saw it as propaganda. In fact, the government did use taxpayers’ money to send out a biased mailing to all households, warning of the dangers of a Leave vote, but it did not prevent the British people from seeing through it. Leave campaigners had prepared a detailed document, but this was dismissed by supporters of the Remain campaign. Concerns over the public reaction should not have been a barrier to preparation.

4. Allowing the EU to play hardball

While EU leaders and officials could not believe that any member state would vote to leave the EU, they also feared that if the UK left and made a success of it, this might encourage other countries to leave. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, some of my non-British colleagues in the European Parliament feared that the EU was facing a battle for its very existence and explained that they would have to be very tough in negotiations to disincentivise other countries from leaving. This was not the EU being nasty as some in the UK have claimed, but simply being hard-headed.

As the negotiations continued and the unity of the EU held, the goal shifted to preventing the UK being seen to get – what they saw – as good a deal outside the EU as inside. This strategy succeeded so much so that at the 2019 European elections, parties in other EU states that had previously campaigned for their countries to leave the EU quietly dropped exiting the EU from their manifestos. UK commentators failed to understand this fear for existence which led to the EU playing hardball, while the UK Government seemingly approaching the negotiations as a series of friendly conversations with both sides aiming for a win-win scenario.

5. Allowing the EU to seize the initiative

I was in Brussels on the morning after the referendum in a meeting of political group leaders. There was clearly shock at the referendum result with EU leaders, MEPs, Commissioners and others wondering whether what to do next. But then David Cameron resigned, triggering a leadership election. While the Conservative Party embarked on a leadership contest, losing focus on the negotiations to come, the EU was able to get its ducks in a row, appoint Michel Barnier as the chief negotiator and establish the process for the negotiations. The Conservative leadership election gave the EU chance to seize control of negotiations.

6. Agreeing to EU sequencing of the negotiations

By the time Theresa May became Prime Minister in July 2016, the EU had already decided on its negotiating strategy, including separating the Withdrawal Agreement from the future relationship. The new Prime Minister’s team meekly accepted the sequencing rather than insisting on parallel talks on both the withdrawal and future relationships agreements. This allowed the EU to bog down the UK in the three issues of money, EU citizens’ rights and the Irish border. In reality, EU negotiators knew that the Irish border could have been solved by a new EU-UK Free Trade Agreement, but by refusing to discuss a trade agreement until after any Withdrawal Agreement, the border eventually became the sticking point. If the UK had been tougher with the EU at this stage and insisted on parallel negotiations of both the Withdrawal Agreement and future relationship, we could have avoided this.

7. Not being clear about the future relationship we want

The EU likes to use templates for negotiations. For example, in trade negotiations, the EU will use the EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement as a template for trade agreements with other ASEAN countries. Similarly, when the EU asked the UK what sort of relationship it wanted if and when the Withdrawal Agreement was agreed, UK negotiators always replied: “the closest possible relationship”. This meant means nothing.

One of my frustrations when speaking to Michel Barnier was his insistence that the UK Government still didn’t know what it wanted since it refused to speak in terms of existing templates such as customs union, EEA- or Canada+++ . In one meeting I had with an EU Prime Minister, EU ministers and leading MEPs, I suggested Canada +++ and we had a discussion on what the pluses meant e.g. services, security cooperation etc. I was told to tell the UK Government to ask for this, but the Prime Minister’s advisors repeated the meaningless mantra of “closest possible relationship.” Michel Barnier was always clear that he thought the best future relationship was for the UK to remain in the EU customs union. It was no surprise that the initial Withdrawal Agreement reflected this.

8. Not being prepared to walk away

Most seasoned negotiators will tell you that you have to maintain the right to walk away from negotiations, whether it be a plumber who gives you an outrageous initial quote or negotiations between trade unions and company bosses. So too in EU negotiations. During my years as an MEP, when negotiating on behalf of the European Parliament with the European Commission and the Council representing the EU’s 28 governments, I had walked away, to be called back to the table at a later date and resume negotiations where we reached a deal.

In one of my last negotiations, I found it ironic that Green and Labour MEPs insisted that we walked away from negotiations with the European Commission and Council if we did not get our way. When I asked why they were prepared to “leave No Deal on the table” for these negotiations but criticised the UK Government for even thinking of leaving No Deal on the table, they laughed and changed the subject. It was quite clear they wanted to weaken the UK’s hand in the hope that we remained in the EU.

So have some of these lessons already been learned?

To be fair to Boris Johnson’s Government, it has played hard ball, insisting on retaining the right to walk away in the hope of getting a better deal. Despite the best efforts of the other parties and some former Conservatives to undermine the UK position, the EU is discussing opening up or amending the Withdrawal Agreement, despite previously refusing to do so.

Only time will tell if it’s too little too late.

The post The eight mistakes I saw the UK make in the Brexit negotiations appeared first on BrexitCentral.

Shortly after the 2015 General Election, I received a note from Boris Johnson which read:

“I don’t know what effect all that fish has had on your brain, but you seem to be the only person who correctly forecast the outcome.”

My prediction had been published in my local newspaper and had included not only the view that David Cameron would emerge triumphant, but also the implications for the voteshare of the other parties. It couldn’t have been more accurate if it had been written after the results had been announced. I predicted a Trump presidency before The Donald secured the Republican nomination and was convinced of a referendum Leave win even though Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage had either gone to bed or assumed defeat in the early hours of 24th June 2016.

That doesn’t mean my forecasts are always spot on. I thought it was a wise move for Theresa May to call an election in 2017 and assumed she would win a runaway victory. But that was before her disastrous campaign.

It’s not therefore surprising that I am asked on a regular basis what I think will happen now – especially from those who assume that, as an MEP, I have special insights. I don’t.

I have always believed common sense will prevail and that in the final crunch negotiations a workable compromise will emerge which both sides can sell to their constituents. Politicians are risk averse and whilst I, as a businessman (and not a politician seeking re-election), would be relaxed about No Deal (aka a ‘Clean Break’), I cannot see our MPs or indeed European leaders countenancing such an outcome. After all, from a European perspective, if we did leave with ‘No Deal’ and then thrived outside, wouldn’t that send an awkward message to any EU member state which may contemplate departure at some future time? The EU needs to be seen to punish us in an unequivocal way. £39 billion is a harsh penalty – equating to £1,500 for every family in the UK.

In the UK we have been fixated by Brexit since the referendum, but for Europeans it hasn’t been topping the news agenda – merely simmering on low heat in the background. But as the deadline approaches, European exporters to the UK will be considering ever more closely the risk of losing access to their biggest European market, as well as competition from the rest of the world. There is no doubt they will have been increasing the pressure on their governments as the Brexit deadline approaches. That is another reason why the EU will not risk No Deal. Germany’s ever weakening economy emphasises this risk.

The EU have tied us up in knots for three years over Ireland, but this was always a hoax. Like an extra unnecessary request on a planning application, which can easily be sacrificed in order to demonstrate compromise, the backstop was never a serious obstacle to two parties wishing to reach an agreement. Both sides claim to want a free trade deal, as set out in the draft Political Declaration. With this in place, there will be no need for a border; in any event, no one will be building one should No Deal transpire.

So from an EU perspective, they don’t want No Deal, and would be enthusiastic to extend, as this provides hope that at some future point Brits may change their minds. But it is more likely that they have reached the correct conclusion which is that British voters are fed up and simply want to get Brexit done now. Support for EU membership in the UK is not undergoing a renaissance, so it’s time for pragmatism. Better for the EU to do a deal whilst Parliament is sympathetic to the EU than at a later time when the parliamentary maths is likely to be less favourable.

Boris’s charm and determination has drawn the EU into ‘the tunnel’ and it was crucial that he persuade them in. Negotiating successfully in public, with media commentary on every move, is an impossibility – for both sides – and one of the reasons we have so far failed. I don’t believe the EU would have entered the tunnel if they didn’t see a glimmer of light at the end of it, which was not an oncoming train. Prediction One therefore is that the EU and the UK Government will find a mutually-acceptable deal.

The question that follows is whether this will be acceptable to the UK Parliament.

From a Lib Dem perspective, nothing will be acceptable bar revocation, so any support from that direction is easy to dismiss. The same goes for the SNP. Labour’s position is more intriguing. On the one hand, if Boris gets his deal through, he will be the hero of the moment and why, if you’re a Labour MP, would you vote to make Boris a hero? On the other hand, if they don’t vote for the deal, their constituents – especially in the North – will be furious at the continued delay, and could punish the party heavily at the ensuing election. Labour MPs know they stand little or no chance of winning the upcoming election with Jeremy Corbyn as leader, so better to get Brexit done and dusted as soon as possible, force a Corbyn resignation and start afresh with a new leader. I believe a critical mass of Labour MPs will be tempted to vote with the Government – sufficient to see the deal through.

For (ex) Tory MPs, there will be some hardline Remainers, like Dominic Grieve, who will never be able to vote for a deal which means we are actually leaving, but I believe this time around most of the European Research Group will fall into line.

From a Brexit Party perspective – which doesn’t wield a parliamentary vote – it’s hard to know how far Boris will push in terms of scrapping the Political Declaration. Even with the backstop removed, there is much that is wrong with the Theresa May–Michel Barnier deal: ECJ supremacy, defence commitments, fishing rights, financial liabilities, to name but a few. Boris has been vocal on these and said he wishes to make changes, so the question is whether we trust him.

Personally, I do. Boris has dreamt of becoming Prime Minister since childhood. People with his drive, ambition and positivity don’t switch off once they reach the top; they are determined to leave a legacy. I don’t believe Brexit in name only or vassal-statism is acceptable to Boris. He knows it will weaken him and risk humiliation at the next election. If he hadn’t become PM yet, he would be more risk averse; but now he’s in Downing Street, he is ‘on a roll’ and can afford to be more bullish in his demands.

Prediction Two therefore is that Boris will get the deal through Parliament and we will be leaving on 31st October. We will be committed to the £39 billion and we Brexiteers won’t have everything we hope for; but it will be a deal we can live with, which can’t be said of the one presented by Boris’s predecessor. My Champagne is on ice.

The post Why I – a Brexit Party MEP – trust Boris Johnson to do a deal and deliver Brexit by the end of this month appeared first on BrexitCentral.

According to a recent article in the Financial Times, ministers have been warned that the UK’s efforts to strike a US trade deal after Brexit could “severely limit” Britain’s ability to negotiate a deal with both the EU and other third countries. 

The warning comes from a report written by the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) which suggests that US pressure on the UK to relax measures to protect animals, plants and humans from disease, pests and contaminants and to allow access to the UK market for US products, such as chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-fed beef, would violate EU sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) regulations. It said the EU would be concerned about non-compliant goods entering its Single Market which, in turn, could lead it to impose a hard border on the island of Ireland. It added:

“Any significant movement could have implications for our other [free-trade agreements] or export arrangements, which are based on existing standards…Weakening our SPS regime to accommodate one trade partner could irreparably damage our ability to maintain UK animal, plant and public health, and reduce trust in our exports.”

How scary is that? Perhaps Remainers are right after all – and that we should not only stay in the European Union, but be banned from visiting the US or indeed anywhere else outside the EU for the sake of our health.

Before taking such a drastic measure, should we not look for some evidence to support DEFRA’s assertions? Of course, we should – and very helpfully one of the commentators on the FT article – “luzhin” – pointed to the World Health Organisation study Global Estimates and Regional Comparisons of Food-borne Diseases.

And if you look at this study, DEFRA’s concerns about US food safety standards being lower than those in the EU are not borne out by the evidence. The study reports global food-borne disease incidence, mortality, and disease burden in terms of Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYs), which measures how many illness years (per 100,000 population) are attributable to disease caused by food. The most frequent causes of food-borne illness are diarrhoeal disease agents, particularly norovirus and Campylobacter spp. The most frequent causes of food-borne deaths are Salmonella, Taenia solium, hepatitis A virus, and aflatoxin. 

It turns out that the region with the lowest DALY is the US, Canada and Cuba (denoted region AMR A) in the study. This region, dominated by the US, has a DALY of 35 per 100,000. All three European groups (EUR A, EUR B and EUR C) have DALYs of between 40 and 50 per 100,000. So the average US citizen is less at risk from food-borne disease than the average EU citizen. 

Using lab report data for Salmonella and Campylobacter, David Paton, Professor of Industrial Economics at Nottingham University Business School, reports incidences for the US and UK of 15 per 100,000 for both in the US and 17 and 108 per 100,000, respectively, in the UK. Again, lower rates in the US.

Washing chicken in chlorine to eliminate harmful bacteria is one of a number of anti-microbial washes permitted in the US as a pathogen reduction treatment. The most common rinses include trisodium phosphate, acidified sodium chlorite, chlorine dioxide and peroxyacids. These washes were banned by the EU’s European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) in 1997. The reason given was concerns about poor hygiene standards in the production process: “the use of antimicrobial solutions does not replace the need for good hygienic practices during processing of poultry carcasses, particularly during handling”. As a consequence, US chicken imports to the EU ceased. However, the EFSA accepted in 2005 that these washes posed “no safety concernover human exposure. Indeed, the chlorine washing of bagged salads is permitted in the EU.

Yet, far from being the guardian of the health of European consumers, the EFSA allows their food to be injected with potentially dangerous additives that are actually banned in the US. One example is the sweetener Aspartame – used in soft drinks and low-calorie sugar-free foods – which has been linked to increased rates of cancer. Other examples are E104 Quinoline Yellow, E122 Carmoisine and E124 Ponceau 4R which are synthetic dyes derived from coal tar and used in sweets and other foods, such as smoked haddock and scotch eggs. They can cause rashes and water retention in people allergic to aspirin, as well as hyperactivity in children. Erik Millstone, Professor of Science Policy at the University of Sussex, told the Daily Telegraph: “Serious avoidable risks are being taken with public health and if the public was well informed about it then they wouldn’t tolerate it”.

As luzhin points out, “complaints about US food safety standards from the EU are based on politics and protectionism rather than science or statistics”. Perhaps, it’s time the US government banned its citizens from visiting the EU on health grounds.

It is certainly time British civil servants ended the policy-based evidence making that is at the heart of their Project Fear campaign. 

This is because nothing in the DEFRA report prevents a UK-EU trade deal. Just because UK consumers buy US products with different standards from EU products does not prevent UK producers making products that meet EU standards. UK producers have to meet the standards set in all export markets that they sell into. Some might only produce products that meet the standard of their most profitable market, eschewing sales in other markets. Further, consumer labelling will provide UK consumers with a choice. If they prefer less expensive US goods, so long as they understand what they are buying, they should be free to do so. 

This is what free trade agreements are all about: increasing consumer choice and reducing the prices consumers pay. And not condemning cheaper products as automatically “inferior” just because more efficient producers can make them at lower prices.

The post Busting the Project Fear health myths about a UK-US free trade deal appeared first on BrexitCentral.

Talks continue but agreement of legal text for leaders to approve looks unlikely

Boris Johnson’s hopes of sealing a Brexit deal before an EU summit on Thursday have been dealt a blow after Finland’s prime minister said he believed time had run out.

As British and EU officials negotiated late into Monday evening, Antti Rinne, whose country holds the EU’s rolling presidency, appeared to call time on the prime minister’s race to find an agreement.

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The day’s political developments as they happen, including the Queen’s speech, and Johnson and Corbyn speaking in the subsequent debate

While we deride their behaviour, we must learn the lessons of the victories of Trump and Johnson.

They chose – and still choose – the gutter and it will be their downfall. Winning on their terms is never worth it.

This is what a Downing Street source said when asked about why what the Queen said about the possibility of the UK leaving the EU on 31 October was less definitive than what Boris Johnson has been saying on this. (See 12.57pm.) The source rejected suggestions that the palace rejected No 10’s proposed wording, and went on:

I appreciate there are differences in language but those differences in language are more reflective of the fact that’s how a Queen’s speech goes rather than any suggestion that there are any differences in policy. The prime minister was very clear that we are leaving on 31 October.

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Eurosceptics and Labour MPs indicate they could back prime minister’s deal if he clinches agreement in Brussels

Boris Johnson is edging towards the parliamentary numbers needed to pass a Brexit deal after more hardline Eurosceptics and pro-deal Labour MPs indicated they could back a new agreement made with the EU.

The prime minister will need to win over almost all the 28 Tory “Spartans” who held out against Theresa May’s deal if he manages to bring an agreement back from Brussels, as well as either the Democratic Unionist party or a chunk of Labour backbenchers.

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