Nick Boles is sabotaging the EEA option

Wednesday 28 November 2018  

It is with some irritation we see that Nick Boles MP has again utterly failed to invest the time in understanding the EEA system. Now that Theresa May's plan is on the rocks, Boles yet again comes forward with a supposedly "evolved" plan after his humiliating slap down from Norwegian premier, Erna Solberg. We were quite clear his "Norway then Canada" plan would be rejected and we were not remotely surprised to see that it was.

Now, though, Boles is pushing a confected version of the EEA option to facilitate a wholly unnecessary customs union. Being that Efta has its own array of trade accords, Efta membership is fundamentally incompatible with a customs union so again we are looking at mangling an otherwise elegant solution to solve what is essentially a non-problem. 

Routinely we are told that Efta EEA does not solved the Northern Ireland border problem. We vehemently disagree. The EEA Agreement embeds tariff-free arrangements, and customs cooperation (and Rules of Origin), while adopting the EU's tariff schedule unilaterally gives us the effect of a common external tariff from which we can diverge where appropriate. The Irish need the Single Market, not a Customs Union.

The EEA is a primarily a configurable system, designed to work with member specific protocols. After joining the EEA system we would look to incorporate a number of added tools and components in much the same way Norway has. The UK would adopt the Union Customs Code.

Here the debate is behind the times with many repeating half understood mantras recycled from the referendum - when there have been a number of new developments since. All goods moved within the EU have a customs status of either Union or non-Union goods. Union transit (UT) is a customs procedure used to help the movement of non-Union status goods between two points in the customs territory of the EU. As of last year, Common transit extends UT to include the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) countries of Switzerland (and Liechtenstein), Norway and Iceland.

Between that and a number of political and legal obligations within the EEA agreement to simplify customs formalities, there is enough there to form the basis of a UK customs protocol attached to the EEA. For what it actually solves, a customs union would be absolute overkill and contrary to the aims of Brexit. 

We know from the backstop in the withdrawal agreement that if the UK opts for a customs union then it will come with all the added obligations of full alignment with the Common Commercial Policy which is precisely where we don't want to be. With a properly configured EEA membership there are no outstanding issues that could possibly justify such an enormous surrender of sovereignty.

We would even go as far as saying that Boles's plan is not even the EEA Efta option. The implications of what he is saying suggests that we would be a quarantined member of Efta but still half in the EU, bound to the EU's trade policy which, when combined with the EEA acquis, starts to look very much like Brexit in name only. We could justifiably conclude that Bole's plan is a cynical version of remain in disguise, masquerading as the Norway option - which is an otherwise tolerable Brexit outcome. 

That said, it is wise never to put down to conspiracy that which is better explained by typical Tory arrogance. Boles has a track record of ignoring better informed sources, and states on his own blog that he has no real interest in the details - even though the political viability of the EEA option absolutely turns on the detail. This is classic Westminster bubble stuff - going off half-cocked on the basis of received wisdom having utterly failed grasp the basics. 

But then, of course, Boles has covered his back by saying a "customs arrangement" would also suffice. These are weasel words from a man who, when challenged, will not be able to adequately flesh out what that would entail, which may lead others to conclude that he doesn't have any answers and the customs union default is still required.

The net effect of these wholly avoidable errors is to further discredit the option and weaken its standing in the public eye. Moreover the addition of a customs union is guaranteed to steer Brexiters away from the option and we don't blame them either. We could really do without the clueless meddling of Boles.

28/11/2018 link

May's deal is the worst of all worlds

Thursday 15 November 2018  

We really wanted to give Theresa May the benefit of the doubt. The devil, however, is in the detail. The NI protocol. If you add it all up, it's a full and permanent customs unions with all the trimmings including the common commercial policy with permanent lock-ins on a raft of regulatory measures. Worse than EEA by a country mile. 

The sleight of hand is that it remains in place until "alternative arrangements" are agreed for Northern Ireland knowing full well that if existing EU CU law is applied in full as the baseline then there is no legally viable alternative. Once it's done, it's done.

The basic test is whether the deal allows the UK to repatriate political authority and frees us to reform economic and social policy through our own democratic institutions. It doesn't. We stay aligned across the full spectrum with the ECJ as the supreme authority. We don't like to use the term BRINO because ultra Brexiters will wail and say any deal is BRINO, but if it walks like a duck...

We take the view that the only reason we would sign up to binding commitments in this way is to minimise the economic harm. But being that we would be outside of the EEA thus subject to standard third country controls, we remain subject to EU political control but without any of the economic benefits. We lose UK services access and free movement of goods and by being further locked into the EU regime we lose any of the necessary autonomy to mitigate.

Here May has conceded on her red lines to put the ECJ in charge of a whole raft of policy areas allowing it to countermand any policy decision the UK might make. A full and deep customs union very much does place asymmetric limitations on UK external policy. We detest the overused term "vassal state" but that's really what this smells like.

When The Leave Alliance proposed the EEA option we took the view that there was a hard separation between the ECJ and the UK. It removes ECJ direct authority. We took the view that that the EEA would mitigate the worst economic impacts, staying aligned only in those areas relevant to European trade while maximising our liberty to trade independently. We understood that there would be compromises but at the very least those compromises would safeguard jobs and trade. This deal does not do that. 

The root dilemma of globalisation is trade versus sovereignty. We recognised there would be binding constraints on the exercise of sovereignty but we did so with the view that we were maximising our trade with the EU by doing so. This deal is the mirror opposite. It is all the impediments to sovereignty while the EU is able to cannibalise UK market share and we cannot pursue a full and active independent trade policy. 

Theresa May said no deal is better than a bad deal. We struggled to imagine any deal worse than no deal but if anyone could accomplish such a feat it was Theresa May. Our view has always been that every effort should be made to ensure we do not leave without a deal but we are left to wonder why we would submit to a deal which gives the EU control but does not safeguard jobs.

A customs union is of limited use in this regard. The majority of third country controls related to regulatory concerns and are not alleviated by a customs union. The extended regulatory provisions for Northern Ireland will likely become the baseline for the whole UK but unlike Norway we would have no role in the process. This really is "fax democracy". 

More crucially, any deal should not be judged strictly by which rules are adopted. What matters is the mode of adoption and the systems of arbitration. There is also the question of safeguards and exit procedures. It is on these questions the deal must be judge, in which we are not remotely satisfied. Likely we will adopt rules verbatim without the safeguards and opt outs afforded by the EEA Efta system.

In the coming days we will see attempts to characterise this deal as an amalgam of the Turkey option or the Swiss option. It is neither. It is an incoherent Frankenstein deal that in no way satisfies the objectives of Brexit, fails to honour promises and doesn't even mitigate the economic disruption. 

Unlike may of our fellow leavers we have kept an open mind and stayed open to the possibility that Theresa May would stick to her guns. In the final analysis, though, she has completely and utterly folded, handing away our every advantage to produce a deal even we would find it too obnoxious to ratify. This deal stinks. 

15/11/2018 link

Norway then... get on with it!

Thursday 1 November 2018  

The divorce analogy has been used quite a bit throughout the course of Brexit where we are breaking up with a partner of some 40 years. So expanding that to start a new relationship, the Norway then Canada approach is essentially finding a nice new girl and asking her if you can use her pad for a bit and then swan off when you find something better. Charming.

Some sofa surfing blokes can get away with that sort of thing but generally if you're starting a new relationship it helps to tell her she's the sweetest gal in the world and you'll be awesome together. But then EEA advocates in parliament are a pretty miserable bunch.

Were we joining the EU today they'd have a Westminster bridge firework display with all the pomp and ceremony. Yet with Efta we're talking about it like a second best we're reluctantly forced to join after the proles have thrown a spanner in the EU works. Again using the divorce analogy, it's like settling for a girl you don't really like but are just afraid to be alone.

To argue the case of why we join Efta you really have to sell it as superior. Which it is. It's a liberal, democratic alliance of North Atlantic countries and Switzerland - regarded as a world centre of banking. It's a natural alliance of nations who don't fit in the EU. We'd be in better company, particularly Iceland and Switzerland who both have a lot to teach us about improving and enhancing our democracy.

Efta isn't a supranational quasi-superstate bloc, it's not intruding on our values and it's not telling us what to do, and it's mainly about trade - which is what we Eurosceptics always said we wanted. EEA and Efta means preserving the bits of the EU worth having while finding a natural home with like-minded allies.

The UK is is particular about fish as are Iceland and Norway. Our combined weight in global fishing affairs is considerable - not least because of the expertise we bring to the table. the same can be said of gas and oil exploration at sea. Teaming up with Switzerland also gives us a major voice in international banking. Efta with the UK is a power in its own right and certainly would be no passive "rule taker".

To join Efta we have to want it and we have to show that not only do we want it, there is also a future for Efta states, and in the process, we can enhance the EEA which could potentially solve a problem for both the EU and Switzerland who have long been seeking to normalise their relations to no avail.

There are any number of geostrategic benefits for the UK being in Efta which would be considerably more agile than the EU, but being that Efta is not a customs union it gives us trade options and the best of both worlds. This to me is an upgrade, not a booby prize.

We have discussed at length how EEA Efta resolves most of the immediate Brexit problems but we should not be looking at this solely from the perspective of  solving a Rubik's Cube. We have to see this in terms of not only how we can leverage the best deal for the UK but also how we can turn Brexit into a positive for all. For the EU it means far less exposure to the costs of Brexit but also rids it of one of its less cooperative members without souring European relations.

If we are going to be minting new coins then why not mint one in honour of Efta and and make a decent show of it to prove to our allies that we are committed to a long term mutually productive relationship where we can have the best possible relations with the EU and still work collaboratively in trade affairs without petty spats and needless acrimony.

What is totally lacking is any sense of vision. The Tories have their "fwee twade" agenda - which is taken seriously by no-one who knows about trade. Here though we have an avenue available to us that is not only pragmatic, it is also deliverable, realistic but also highly desirable if we do so in the spirit of building something and giving it new energy. The dismal hostility from Brexiters is hardly attractive to a new partner nor especially is the grudging negativity of remainers.

What the MPs need to so if they want Efta is to not only get to grips with the issues, but also project a markedly improved attitude and show a bit of initiative in terms of presenting a viable vision. They need to be out waving the Efta flag as enthusiastically as they once waved the ring of stars.

The notion of docking to Efta part time is very much the bureaucrat's solution devoid of any human energy or ambition. It is as though we are resigned to becoming a second rate power on an EU leash, somehow forgetting that Britain is a country of considerable economic, intellectual, academic and scientific resource with plenty to offer.

Norway may play hard to get but she needs to know we are serious and we're not going to take her for a ride and use her. She isn't interested in a rebound relationship and on recent from is not impressed at our reckless and selfish behaviour. Who would take that on?

The short of it is that the tide is going out on Tory trade fantasies and the latest enthusiasm for TPP is utterly ridiculous. Trade gravity is one of the few absolute rules in economics. We may not belong in a supranational federalising project such as the EU, but we are still every bit Europeans and we still belong in the European family of nations. Efta best represents our circumstances and by every possible measure including healing the nation, it is a no-brainer. What are we waiting for?

01/11/2018 link

A failure to plan was a plan for failure.

Friday 12 October 2018  

If speculation is to be believed, Theresa May is mulling a whole UK customs union to avoid a customs border between the mainland Britain and Northern Ireland. Naturally this sets alarm bells ringing with leavers, particularly Tories for whom "free trade" has become an article of faith and a sine qua non.  

This would seem to be at odds with much of what Theresa May has previously said as we have noted, along with the EU Commission, a customs union of itself does not actually achieve very much. Here we have a government grasping for any and all solutions having allowed itself to be bullied by the ultras into closing down entirely viable options such as the EEA. Now Mrs May finds her options are limited. 

It was always the case that the UK would have to make compromises to one extent or other where it would have to decide on its political priorities for now and the future. The Leave Alliance anticipated this long in advance which is why we thought it necessary to publish a plan before the referendum. 

Now that we are at this critical juncture it would appear that the so-called Norway option, our preferred means of exit, is gaining in popularity as it presents itself as the most obvious solution to the various trade realities. 

Doubtlessly this has all of the hardcore Brexiters crawling out of the woodwork to trot out the usual anti-EEA mantras but these are the same people who have written off Chequers and every other proposal on the table bar an ill-defined Canada style FTA which still sees the UK facing standard third country controls and likely would involve adopting the EU's food safety and product regulations in full with direct ECJ influence eventually.

The cynical ploy on their part is pretending that a Canada style FTA can be adapted for frictonless trade despite there being no precedent for this and plenty of messages from the EU apparatus saying that this categorically isn't possible. It is also wholly inadequate for our services sector.  

It is our view that EEA critics are not engaging in reality. Many of the criticisms of the EEA are valid (though often overstated) but if maintaining frictionless trade is an objective of the Brexit process then there simply isn't any other option. Furthermore, the persistent antagonism against the Norway option is not only at odds with many of the claims made by key leavers during the referendum, it also ensures that of the solutions remaining, they are worse for the UK in terms of both sovereignty and market access.

Though there are repeated attempts to kill off the EEA as an option, the UK could pick up the threads at any time and there is every reason to expect a collaborate attitude from the EU in doing so. The EU would prefer not to add yet another strand to its external relations and the EEA is designed to those ends. 

If anything has made Brexit more costly and difficult than it ever needed to be it is the obstinacy and intransigence of the Brexiter ultras who have squandered a genuine opportunity to to reshape Europe in favour of free trade delusions and a stunted idea of sovereignty. Worse still we will pay for it through the course of a long vassal state transition that could have been avoided. It's almost like a Brexit plan was a good idea. 

12/10/2018 link

Doubling down on madness

Saturday 22 September 2018  

Theresa May has doubled down on her Chequers insanity in what is probably the most breathtaking speech thus far. She has dismissed any EU version of a Northern Ireland backstop while once again closing down the EEA avenue. "Here, the EU is still only offering us two options". said May.

"The first option would involve the UK staying in the European Economic Area and a customs union with the EU. In plain English, this would mean we’d still have to abide by all the EU rules, uncontrolled immigration from the EU would continue and we couldn’t do the trade deals we want with other countries.

That would make a mockery of the referendum we had two years ago. The second option would be a basic free trade agreement for Great Britain that would introduce checks at the Great Britain/EU border. But even worse, Northern Ireland would effectively remain in the Customs Union and parts of the Single Market, permanently separated economically from the rest of the UK by a border down the Irish Sea.

Hitherto now May has been content to trot our mealy mouthed rejections of the EEA but this week has gone all out to smear the option and has joined the ranks of her ultras in lying about it in totality. It is, therefore, a dead option under this prime minister. The second remark eliminates all known legal solutions for a backstop which takes us further away from concluding a deal. 

The core dishonesty here though is knocking the ball back into the EU's court. It was always for the UK to present a workable proposal and despite having been warned on a number of occasions that the single market is indivisible May has time and ignored what she is told. She is washing her hands of any responsibility. 

In one spectacularly ill-judged statement Theresa May has destroyed anything we might consider progress and the goodwill that goes with it. If we were nowhere yesterday then we really are nowhere today. Barring a miracle fudge in the final hour it now looks less likely than ever that we will leave with a deal. Theresa May is going down in history as the PM who wrecked Britain.  

22/09/2018 link

Norway then Canada cannot work

Thursday 6 September 2018  

The "Norway option" is often described as an off the shelf solution. It is only off the shelf insofar as it already exists but it is only the framework of a solution and one will will need to be configured for the UK's unique needs.

The EEA agreement can be tailored to meet our needs. It is an adaptive framework with country specific protocols and the UK will need several to cover fisheries, agriculture customs cooperation and most likely a distinct protocol for Northern Ireland. All of this will take almost as long to negotiate and implement as an FTA.

Consequently, the notion that we can use the EEA as a short term interim measure, as suggested by Nick Boles MP, is one not in touch with reality. He proposes that we pick up the EEA as a short term transition while we negotiate a Canada style FTA.

This would effectively double the workload where we spend considerable technical and diplomatic resource in configuring the EEA only to have to start the process all over again. We would ask, for starters, what the actual point is? A tailored EEA solution would be entirely adequate for our needs and one that addresses most of the technical dilemmas thrown up by Brexit. It would safeguard our EU trade in ways that an FTA wouldn't.

Put simply, if we leave the EEA we are treated as a third country and subject to full third country controls which even an unprecedented FTA cannot address. There is no economic utility in doing so. Were we to embark on such a process it would be with a view to full divergence in the hopes of serving larger markets elsewhere which is highly improbable.

Diverging on standards would create considerable customs problems for our EU trade, which of itself is troubling, but it is also fruitless since a number of countries already have harmonisation commitments with the EU centring on global standards - which are increasingly forming the backbone of EU regulation.

If the aim is a looser relationship than the EEA then it makes more sense to work with other Efta member to improve the EEA agreement over time and make better use of the system of veto. Moreover the UK would be welcomed as a fully committed member. In this it is difficult to see why EEA states would welcome the disruption to the EEA system for the sole benefit of the UK if we intend to leave it.

Superficially, "Norway then Canada" seems like a sensible approach but it ignores the level of work involved and assumes the EEA is immediately operable as though it were a software patch. It isn't. There is no possible way we can leave the EU without at least transitional provisions for fishing and agriculture and if we wish to retain participation in integrated markets, any new protocol would have to be permanent.

Though the UK has global ambitions the reality of trade points to the fact that we must continue to participate fully in European markets and Efta is the obvious vehicle for doing so. Should we take the EEA avenue then we must do so as a fully engaged member rather than using it as a cop out. It is difficult to see why the EU would entertain a transient use of it or deviate from the existing exit schedule if the end point is a Canada FTA. It will not seek to prolong Brexit or add another layer of complexity that would require coordination with EEA states.

We would urge Nick Boles and "Better Brexit" to rethink their proposal. It is impractical, unworkable and naive. The EEA is only going to work as a long term venture and should we commit to it there is every chance we can shape it into something better with the cooperation of the EU, perhaps even expanding it to Switzerland, thus consolidating the EU's neighbourhood relationships. Brexit is then a win-win for Europe and nobody feels used by it.

Longer term, as the UK establishes its own external trade relations it may be possible to phase out aspects of the single market where appropriate thus contributing to the overall wealth of Europe. The EU says that we cannot cherrypick from the single market, but there are ways to configure it from within and the UK is more likely to get what it wants by coordinating divergence with the EU rather than opening up retaliatory spats.

The short of it is that Britain needs a deep and comprehensive partnership that goes well beyond the scope of an FTA and the most intelligent means of doing so is to join a multilateral system such as the EEA. We can then go further as the EEA is not subject to the same WTO MFN clauses we find in FTAs. It then provides a framework for continuous and managed exit rather that attempting it all in one go. It has been our view from the beginning that Brexit is a process, not an event - and that much has not changed.

06/09/2018 link

The EEA is smart Brexit, not soft Brexit

Wednesday 11 July 2018  

The Leave Alliance is the only campaign to have produced a workable comprehensive plan. Our recommendation is to leave via the EEA. This is not because we are soft brexiteers.

We took the view that a vision without a plan is just a pipe dream. In beginning the analysis we first had to ask if the vision was achievable and relevant. That's where we first hit problems. The classic eurosceptic free trade mantra hasn't kept up with the times.

This is largely because free trade does not exist and has not existed for some time. A free trade deal is not free trade. It is regulated trade - and we find that in the era of globalisation the driver of intergovernmental trade talks is regulatory harmonisation.

Being that we have, unlike other countries, spent three decades in a harmonised ecosystem, a lot of our trade has evolved to suit that system. So in departing from that system we must offer a viable alternative. That's where things get messy.

This is because of the emergence of global standards and regulations which we discovered have enormous influence on what we'd always assumed were just Brussels regulation. This changes the game entirely. It limits the potential and the economic utility of deregulation.

That then certainly leaves a number of Tory Brexiter ideas out in the cold. We could leave the single market and diverge but this is at a point in history when all of the countries we have eyes on are converging on the global standard with a view to trading with the EU.

We then looked at the constraints of the Brexit process where Article 50 puts time constraints on us. Looking at the extent of EU integration there was never any possibility this could all be done in a hurry. From there we took the view that Brexit is a process, not an event.

It became clear that forty years of technical, legal, social, political and economic integration could not be unravelled overnight - and in a great many instances, undesirable to do so. So how do we separate the good from the bad?

We then had to do something that Tory Brexiters have not. We thought about what the EU point of view might be and the red lines it would likely hold us to. It became clear that an FTA would be entirely inadequate as either a destination or a means to manage the process.

We therefore needed a framework. A transition. Given the preparations we would need to make, it would have to be a longer term transition. We are still of the view that Mrs May's "vassal state" transition is not long enough.

So it became clear that we needed a departure lounge that avoided any cliff edges. Being that the EEA is an available framework covering all the relevant subject areas, it presents itself as the obvious way to manage it.

But then we enter the extensive discussions about the respective limitations of the EEA. Certainly it is suboptimal, but preferable to the alternatives. As a longer term destination though, the UK would probably find such a solution to be too restrictive for our size.

But then there are plenty of avenues available to us after we resolve the immediate issue of leaving. We could either look to negotiate a new relationship and declare our Efta membership temporary or throw our resources at developing Efta.

Since the referendum our understanding has evolved and we have come to appreciate the EEA agreement for what it is. An adaptive framework with country specific protocols. We can use the system to evolve the relationship.

By adding our weight to Efta - a respected entity in its own right, with members able to forge their own trade deals as well as having an enhanced preferential relationship with the EU, we can improve the EEA and re-balance the power equation.

We also took the pragmatic view that if we took the step into the EEA there would be no real incentive for the EU to start a new process and a new comprehensive framework for the sole benefit of the UK. Why bother when we can adapt what we have?

In doing so we would be leaving without a vassal state transition which could end up lasting a decade or more, and we would accomplish the first job of leaving the political union while minimising the economic damage.

In respect of that, this would honour the eurosceptic view that we want the best available trade with the EU, just not ever closer union and the final destination of the EU. Given the kind of technical integration which is mutually beneficial, it makes sense to keep the EEA.

But this then raises the vexed question of freedom of movement. Our view has always been that leaving the EU is the primary goal and immigration is a secondary issue and we deal with the issues in that order. Take the win and then address the FoM issue.

Here we find that under Article 112 of the EEA agreement there is a mechanism available to us and a precedent which would begin a political process to adapt freedom of movement. So would this be sufficient?

Obviously this does not appease the hard liners - but what we find is that we need a full spectrum policy of varying measures because modern immigration control is not done at the borders. We need an entirely new policy on immigration.

At this point we would be better looking to negotiate with our Efta allies for an EEA wide reform of FoM, where combined with voices from inside the EU, we could be kicking at an open door. The point is, though, that we were never going to resolve all of the issues all at once and it will take continual pressure to keep the Brexit momentum going. What concerns us most is securing the first step - leaving the EU safely.

By taking a harder line we risk either being in a perpetual state of transition only to move to a threadbare FTA, sacrificing substantial trade for ineffectual immigration controls which don't really address what people are really worried about.

We do not, therefore, see EEA as "soft Brexit". Rather we see it as the most efficient, clean, smart Brexit, taking into account the polticial obligation we have to Northern Ireland and the desire to remain open to trade with the EU. It works and it beats the alternatives.

11/07/2018 link


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