Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Off down the rabbit hole into a fantasy land

Theresa May has officially kicked off the start to negotiations to extract Britain from the European Union and sent the country down a rabbit hole and into a fantasy land [BBC].

At least this is the view of Ken Clarke, the veteran parliamentarian, who was the only Tory to vote against triggering article 50. He made a passionate pro-Europe speech making him an unlikely hero of the remain left, and likened the Tory PM Theresa May to Alice in Wonderland as she prepared to send Britain into what might end up as a Titanic disaster rather than the Titanic success that Boris Johnson has hailed Brexit will be [Guardian].

Britain could tumble down the rabbit hole "and emerge in a wonderland" where suddenly world leaders are "queuing up" for to strike trade deals with Britain including "nice men like President Trump and [Turkish] President Erdogan," Clarke declared sarcastically.

"I do want the best outcome for the UK from this process," he said. "No doubt somewhere there's a hatter holding a tea party with a dormouse!" he quipped [Channel 4 / Guardian].

"Brexit could be a historic disaster"

Clarke has never minced his words when it comes to Brexit and said it will be a disaster for Britain.

"I don't want to fall into the [trap] of wandering around, positively welcoming gloom and disaster, so as to be able to say: 'I told you so.' But I actually do think it will make us poorer. It could be a historic disaster."

"If it turns out to be at some enormous cost and it brings an end to international investment in quite a lot of sectors of the economy, then of course it could be a disaster." [Guardian]

He is not the only Tory to decry the folly of Brexit. Tory grandee Lord Heseltine has consistently hit out at Brexit campaigners for not having a clear plan. Speaking on BBC's Newsnight only days after the referendum result Lord Heseltine said voters were "sold a pup"

He told Evan Davis that British people were misled by Brexit campaigners, and that - regardless of whether Boris Johnson became prime minister - he should be put in charge of negotiations with the EU because "he got us into this mess". He also argued there should either be either a second referendum or a general election to make sure the "will of the people" is met [YouTube].

But his battle against Brexit has earned him no support from much of the Tory party. Indeed soon after he voted against the government's Brexit legislation he was sacked as a government adviser [BBC].

Former PM John Major has also spoken out calling Brexit an "historic mistake" [Independent].

Remainers vilified

But anyone bold enough to stand up to the so-called "will of the people" has been vilified in the media. Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, Ken Clarke, Lord Heseltine, Nick Clegg, Tim Farron, Gina Miller and High Court Judges have all found themselves at the sharp end of the sword as the right wing press tear into them.

Judges have been labelled the "Enemies of the People" while others have been attacked in social media and even received death threats.

Gina Miller has been singled out by many hardcore Leave campaigners for her High Court action which sought to clarify that only parliament could vote on whether Article 50 could be triggered rather than the PM unilaterally invoking a Royal Prerogative [FT].

Gina Miller has said she never expected the levels of abuse she received [New Statesman]. She says she doesn't "know Britain any more," and has even talked of leaving the country altogether as the vitriol and threats have become so severe.

Quitting the UK

Miller is not the only one thinking of leaving. Indeed many people have already left whilst there is also a decline in some people coming in.

The numbers of those leaving the UK because of Brexit are difficult to determine. But there are some notable examples.

The director of the V&A Martin Roth quit over his disillusion with Brexit [Guardian / Independent]. Tristram Hunt then quit as Labour MP of Stoke on Trent to become V&A director and in so doing prompted a by-election [Guardian / BBC]. Labour retained the seat and saw UKIP's leader Paul Nuttall flounder [Guardian].

Since the Brexit vote there has been some indication as to how unwelcome many Europeans now feel. The number of nurses coming to the UK from the EU since the Brexit vote has fallen by 90% [Telegraph].

And the hospitality trade has expressed concerns as much of it relies on EU migrant workers.

Yet should anyone make and public comment or raise such concerns one is immediately booed down as was one woman on a recent broadcast of BBC Question Time [Huffington Post].

Whilst some argue that Brits could easily fill rolls currently taken by EU citizens, the fact is many British people don't even apply to do such work. Indeed in the last week Pret A Manger said only around 1 in 50 applicants were British. It has even began to dawn on the ardent Leave campaigner Tim Martin, owner of the Wetherspoons pub chain that EU citizens were much needed in Britain.

Britain could not afford to put the brake on immigration, Martin said whilst calling for a special deal for EU workers which took advantage of its proximity compared with countries such as India and China.

"For the UK to be a successful country and economy in the next 20, 30, 50 years, we need a gradually rising population and that will need some type of reasonably controlled immigration. If we don't get it I think the economy will tend to go backwards," he said.

His comments were criticised by Remainers who pointed out that being a member of EU already gave such advantages [Guardian].

Growing racism and xenophobia

Several months after the referendum the fallout for race relations has improved little. One A Polish woman was booed by audience members on BBC1's Question Time when she said she no longer feels welcome by 52% of British voters who backed Brexit. The woman says she's lived in the England for 23 years and was never discriminated against before the Brexit vote [Independent / Guardian].

Post-Brexit racism soared 40% according to Home Office figures figures and one Polish man was even killed after an attacked which police described as a "hate crime" [Independent].

And more recent figures appear to show there is no slowing of such crime. Indded all the sign appear to indicate an increase in xenophobia and hate crime [Independent].

UKIP have been blamed for much of the anti-immigrant stance that dominated the Leave campaign. But many Tories were also guilty of stirring the pot which has emboldened the far-right.

And in parliament Ken Clarke, who has long stopped caring about what anyone in the Tory party thinks about him, poured scorn on some of his own colleagues. Enoch Powell would not feel out of place among the current crop of "mildly anti-immigrant" Tories, Clarke said in his 20 minute address to parliament last month.

Trade and weak pound

The racism and xenophobia was arguably always there. Brexit has just helped in emboldening the racists and given an anti-immigrant stance an air of respectability.

Britain faces more that infighting and thuggery however. In the coming years it needs negotiate a divorce from the EU, to establish trade deals with the EU as a whole and sign new deals with other countries post-Brexit.

And, as has been iterated many times, this is by no means an easy task.

May has all but said she'll tear up all trade ties with the EU and start over, essentially taking Britain back to WTO rules. What is little talked about is that by doing so means Britain with have no signed trade deals after leaving the EU and will have to thrash out deals with other blocks independently. Such a process could take years and under WTO rules have to be ratified by all 164 WTO members.

Contrary to popular perceptions, Article 50 inaugurates a withdrawal process, not a trade agreement. It will involve negotiating essentially technical issues, though important ones – such as the rights of British citizens in the EU and of EU citizens in the UK – and can be achieved within the two-year limit. Article 50 does allow for a shadow negotiation on trade matters. Indeed whilst May wants to negotiate a trade deal in tandem Michel Barnier, the EU chief negotiator, has all but ruled this out.

Complicated negotiations

And thus it gets very complicated. The UK cannot simply 'cut and paste' the terms of its current WTO membership - as part of the EU - and carry those terms over. Depending on the terms of Brexit, at least some of these schedules will need to be rewritten, because leaving the EU will affect the EU's own commitments to other WTO members. Agreeing the UK's new schedules will involve negotiations between the UK, the EU and other WTO members to resolve sensitive issue such as limits on agricultural subsidies and the size of tariff quotas - where certain quantities of imports are charged lower tariffs. There will also be questions about how existing EU-wide quotas – of which there are currently almost 100, mostly on agricultural products – are divided up between the UK and the EU post-Brexit [Institute for Government / Guardian / Economist].  


The Remain campaign was labelled as project fear for its predictions of chaos following a Brexit vote. However, many predictions are likely to come true as time passes. There was no immediate departure of banks and manufacturing. But as these business sectors see Brexit as impeding their operations they will shift. Indeed there has already been signs that some firms are shifting operations.

This will undoubtedly affect jobs and further burden government expenditure as regards welfare benefits at a time when austerity is still an issue.

Recently the French presidential favourite Emmanuel Macron suggested UK talent move to France [Sky News / Independent]. While the language barrier might prove difficult such offers may only serve to increase the brain drain. There are a great many Remain voters that will remain in the UK, but there is a large proportion looking to escape Brexit Britain [Guardian].

Only time will tell, but it seems clear already that there will be less industry, a smaller financial sector and less opportunities unless one wants to pick strawberries or work in Pret A Manger.

But given the falling value of sterling and the rise in the cost of living, any job will be probably much appreciated.

Brexit is built on fanciful dreams of an open Britain which will trade freely with the world. But quite is Britain offering to trade with the world it isn't already selling? And how would any future trade deal be any better than the trade deals Britain already has in place with those countries? As for buying things, Britain already buys from countries all around the world, and there is no reason to indicate that Britain would buy any more than it already does. Indeed buying products from halfway round the world will be more expensive not only on potential WTO tariffs, which would apply to all countries the UK might import from, but also due to transportation costs. So in respect to the belief that Brexit will conjure up a Wonderland, Clarke is right. But unlike Alice's adventure there won't be the relief of waking up when the stack of cards come crashing down. In fact a leaked report has already indicated Britain is in for an "economic shock" should it leave the EU without a deal [Independent].

No clear plan

It seems clear that there is still no clear plan. Theresa May suggests no deal will be better than a bad deal and some in her party have embraced this. Indeed even amongst many Brexiteers the WTO option is seen as a kamikaze Brexit. The Daily Mail this weekend warned that Andrea Leadsom and her ultras would steer the UK not towards a soft Brexit or a hard Brexit, but a Kamikaze Brexit.

Yet it has emerged that there are no contingency plans for Britain falling back onto WTO rules. In fact it has emerged that the government has not carried out a full assessment of the potential economic impact of Britain leaving the EU without a trade deal, after the Brexit secretary told a committee of MPs, whilst saying that modelling the repercussions of a default to World Trade Organisation [WTO] arrangements were impossible [Guardian / Mirror]. 

However he later contradicted this when on BBC Question Time the Secretary for Exiting the European Union said the government had a "huge contingency plan" for the UK leaving the EU without a deal [BBC].

During the programme Davis also said the UK would abide by its obligations when it comes to settling outstanding liabilities with the EU, but played down claims these could amount to £50bn. However the EU has already threatened to take the UK to the International Court should it not pay up the full amount [Business Insider].

Meanwhile, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said the EU was "simply going to ask us to settle the tab before we leave", and Labour Brexit spokesman Sir Keir Starmer said the UK had to honour its debts "otherwise no country is going to want to deal with us" in future trade negotiations.

Rabbit holes & elephant traps

Today's triggering of Article 50 marks a milestone on a long road. But the path down which it leads is treacherous and full of potholes. Ken Clarke has likened it to heading down a rabbit hole to a fantasy land. Newspaper pundits, such as the Telegraph's Christopher Booker, suggests Davis is heading into an elephant trap.

"As for the fond belief that, without any deal, we could continue to trade with the EU just 'under WTO rules', those still suggesting this are clearly unaware that not a single developed country relies just on 'WTO rules' to trade. The EU treaty database shows that it alone has no fewer than 880 bilateral trading arrangements with almost every country in the world, including 20 with the US and 67 with China; all of which we would drop out of by leaving the EU."

There are other traps too as the "electronic, light-touch customs checks" that allow 10,000 British trucks a day to move goods anywhere in the EU without border controls.

"[Davis] still doesn't seem have grasped is that the moment we leave the EU [and the European Economic Area] to become a 'third country', we are automatically excluded from this electronic system: to be faced with all the need for paper documentation and inspection procedures which could soon have lorries backing up from Dover to London and beyond."

"The horrifying fact is that our politicians are heading for these negotiations without any real idea of what a mighty elephant trap awaits them." [Telegraph]

There are a good many that believe Brexit will be a disaster for Britain. Former UKIP Nigel Farage is not one who subscribes to this view, but has said he would leave Britain should Brexit fail. "If Brexit is a disaster I will go and live abroad. I will go and live somewhere else." [Business Insider]

That will surely bring great comfort to countless Briton's left without jobs as car plants relocate, or British housewives struggling with increasing shopping bills and as those with jobs face higher taxes to make up shortfalls as the City shifts to Europe.

No-one really knows where the road to Brexit will lead. Indeed to only thing certain is the uncertainty. And business hates uncertainty.

tvnewswatch, London

Monday, February 27, 2017

Former PM, John Major, brands Brexit an 'historic mistake'

John Major, the former Prime Minister has made an incendiary speech at Chatham House in London branding Brexit a 'historic mistake'. This is the speech in full:

Eight months ago a majority of voters opted to leave the European Union. I believed then – as I do now – that was an historic mistake, but it was one – once asked – that the British nation had every right to make.

The Government cannot ignore the nation's decision and must now shape a new future for our country.

Some changes may be beneficial: others may not. A hard Brexit – which is where we seem to be headed – is high risk. Some will gain. Others – will lose.

Many outcomes will be very different from present expectations. We will find, for example, that – for all the social pressure for immigration control – economically, we will need their skills.

The Referendum was one of the most divisive votes in British history. It not only divided the four nations of our United Kingdom, but opened up divisions within those nations, within political parties, within neighbourhoods, within families, between age and income groups, and among friends.

It will not be easy to heal those divisions and unite our nations. Yet that is what we must do.

In Scotland, I believe a hard Brexit will encourage a second referendum on independence. This may seem improbable at the moment, but it would be reckless to ignore the risk.

As we saw last June, emotion and national pride can overcome economic self-interest. If Scotland were to become independent, both she and the UK would be diminished. That cannot be ignored as Brexit evolves.

The same is true of Northern Ireland. Many years of painstaking effort went into the Irish Peace Process which, even apart from Brexit , is at a fragile moment. Uncertainties over border restrictions between Ulster and the Republic are a serious threat – to the UK, to the peace process, and for Ireland, North and South. A special deal will be necessary.

I will return to these issues on another occasion.

As I voted on the losing side, I have kept silent since last June. This evening I don't wish to argue the EU is perfect. Plainly it isn't. Nor do I deny the economy has been more tranquil than expected since the decision to leave was taken.

But I do observe we haven't yet left the EU, and I have watched with growing concern as the British people have been led to expect a future that seems to be unreal and over-optimistic. Obstacles are brushed aside as of no consequence, whilst opportunities are inflated beyond any reasonable expectation of delivery.

I am no longer in politics. I have absolutely no wish to re-enter it in any capacity. I don't seek publicity – more often than not, I shy away from it.

But I can't ignore what I learned in Government. Nor can I forget the people who voted to leave Europe in the belief it might improve their lives. If events go badly, their expectations will not be met, and whole communities will be worse off. The particular fear I have is that those most likely to be hurt will be those least able to protect themselves.

So, I have two objectives this evening: to offer a reality check on our national prospects; and to warn against an over-optimism that – if unachieved – will sow further distrust between politics and the public – at a time when trust needs to be re-built. It would be better to underplay than overplay expectations.

The post-referendum debate has been deeply dispiriting.

After decades of campaigning, the anti-Europeans won their battle to take Britain out of Europe. But, in the afterglow of victory, their cheerleaders have shown a disregard that amounts to contempt for the 48% who believed our future was more secure within the European Union.

Remain voters are of all political persuasions, and of none. Over recent months, many have written to me in dismay – even despair.

They are people from every walk of life who have every right to their view, every right to express it, and every right to have their opinion represented and tested in Parliament.

This 48% care no less for our country than the 52% who voted to leave. They are every bit as patriotic. But they take a different view of Britain's future role in the world, and are deeply worried for themselves, for their families, and for our country.

They do not deserve to be told that, since the decision has been taken, they must keep quiet and toe the line. A popular triumph at the polls – even in a referendum – does not take away the right to disagree – nor the right to express that dissent.

Freedom of speech is absolute in our country. It's not "arrogant" or "brazen" or "elitist", or remotely "delusional" to express concern about our future after Brexit . Nor, by doing so, is this group undermining the will of the people: they are the people. Shouting down their legitimate comment is against all our traditions of tolerance. It does nothing to inform and everything to demean – and it is time it stopped.

Our Parliament exists to scrutinise the Executive. That is its job. So, it is depressing to see "Leave" enthusiasts in Parliament acting against their own principles. To win the Referendum, they asserted the sovereignty of our own Parliament: now, they speak and vote to deny that same Parliament any meaningful role in shaping, in overseeing, or in approving the outcome of our negotiations in Europe. Our Parliament is not a rubber stamp – and should not be treated as if it were.

As a former Parliamentarian, I believe the negotiations to come are so crucial to our nation's future that the Government would be wise to take frequent account of public opinion through Parliamentary debate.

Of course, neither Parliament nor public can micro-manage the negotiations. We must trust Ministers to do so. And they must have flexibility.

But Parliament must be free to debate and comment and advise. For it not to do so would be wrong in principle: it would also be unwise politically if – as it might – the will of the people evolves, and the reality of Brexit becomes unpopular.

The hopes of those who favoured leaving the European Union are sky-high. We are told that countries "are queueing up to do trade deals with us". That "our best days lie ahead".

It all sounds very enticing. And – for the sake of our country – I hope the optimists are proved right. But I'm not sure they will be. My own experience of international negotiations – and the national self-interest that accompanies them – makes me doubt the rosy confidence being offered to the British people.

Negotiations are all about "give" and "take". We know what the Brexiteers wish to take: yet we hear nothing about what our country may have to give in return. If anyone genuinely believes that Europe will concede all we wish for – and exact no price for doing so – then they are extraordinarily naïve.

As I consider the complexities that lie ahead, the words of Kipling come to mind:

"I keep six honest serving men

(They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When,

And How and Where and Who."

It is the detail – the what and the why, the when and the how, and the where and the who – that is key. To avoid later recriminations, the British public needs to be made aware now of the hurdles ahead – and what different outcomes will mean for their future.

Let me turn to the politics of exit.

Leaving the European Union is not just about trade. It will have political consequences. For over forty years, British foreign policy has been based upon the twin pillars of our relations with the United States and the European Union. To be straddled between these two economic and political giants has served us well.

Outside the European Union, we become far more dependent upon the United States and – for four and possibly eight years – upon a President less predictable, less reliable and less attuned to our free market and socially liberal instincts than any of his predecessors.

As a boy, I was taught that America was our greatest ally and – throughout my life – I have seen her as so.

But America's size and power means we are, by far, the junior partner: mostly we follow – only rarely can we lead. Despite the romantic view of committed Atlanticists, the "special relationship" is not a union of equals. I wish it were: but it isn't; America dwarfs the UK in economic and military power. That, sadly – is fact.

Once we are out of the EU, our relationship with the United States will change. She needs a close ally inside the EU: once outside, that can no longer be us.

That may not be the only change. If we disagree with American policy, we may weaken our ties. But if we support it slavishly, we become seen as an American echo – an invidious role for a nation that has broken free from Europe to become more independent.

And – inevitably – there will be disagreements: the US wish to contain China and engage Russia; we wish to contain Russia and engage China.

We seem likely to disagree also on refugees, free trade, the legality of Jewish settlements, and climate change. How many disagreements can there be before even the closest of ties begin to fray?

Until now, the world has seen the UK as a leader within Europe. We are the second largest economy, with hopes of one day overtaking Germany. We are one of only two nations with significant nuclear and military power. We have the widest, and deepest, foreign policy reach of any European nation.

In Europe, we have often set policy: the Single Market; enlargement to the East; restraints upon expenditure – together with a host of less prominent policies. Our role within Europe has magnified the power of our nation state: once we leave, that will no longer be so.

The Prime Minister knows all this: her policy to maintain a good relationship with Europe is surely right. But, at some time, she will have to face down those who favour total disengagement – and who have never accepted our role within Europe.

For some, a total divorce has been a decades-long ambition. I believe they are utterly wrong. And although – today – they may be allies of the Prime Minister, the risk is that – tomorrow – they may not.

I am no dedicated Europhile. I said "No" to the Euro and "No" to Schengen on open borders. But I have never doubted the importance of co-operation with a successful Europe.

And – in voting to leave – we have done the EU great harm.

For the loss of the UK will weaken the EU – especially when set against the superpowers of America or China. For the first time, the EU is contracting not expanding. It is about to become smaller and less relevant. And, without the UK, it may change in character, becoming more protectionist and less of a pillar of free trade. Such a Europe would be damaging to British interests.

Our departure is also adding to domestic political problems across Europe. Britain has rejected the colossus of the EU. This has energised the anti-EU, anti-immigrant nationalists that are growing in number in France, Germany, Holland – and other European countries.

None of these populist groups is sympathetic to the broadly tolerant and liberal instincts of the British. Nonetheless, their pitch is straightforward. If Britain – sober, stable, moderate, reliable Britain, with its ancient Parliament and anti-revolutionary history – can break free of a repressive bureaucracy in Brussels, why, then "so can anyone". It is a potent appeal.

I caution everyone to be wary of this kind of populism. It seems to be a mixture of bigotry, prejudice and intolerance. It scapegoats minorities. It is a poison in any political system – destroying civility and decency and understanding. Here in the UK we should give it short shrift, for it is not the people we are – nor the country we are.

Whatever grievances exist, the UK and Europe cannot ignore one another without mutual damage. As the Prime Minister has intimated, our future self-interest is to co-operate on all aspects of security; on terrorism; on crime.

We should take a common position on climate change; on human rights; and on representative democracy. We should continue to co-operate over the migrant surge to Europe and contain Russian misbehaviour.

The plain truth is this: irrespective of Brexit, the UK benefits from engagement with Europe – not isolation from Europe – and both parties have an interest in ensuring that is maintained.

My hunch is that, over the years ahead, the political price of leaving the EU may turn out to be greater than the economic cost.

That said – to protect our interests – the trade negotiations will require statesmanship of a high order. There is a real risk the outcome will fall well below the hopes and expectations that have been raised: I see little chance we will be able to match the advantages of the Single Market.

In my own experience, the most successful results are obtained when talks are conducted with goodwill: it is much easier to reach agreement with a friend than a quarrelsome neighbour.

But, behind the diplomatic civilities, the atmosphere is already sour. A little more charm, and a lot less cheap rhetoric, would do much to protect the UK's interests.

The negotiations will begin with the costs of disengagement. These could be politically explosive.

During the Referendum, the "Leave" campaign promised to "take back control" of huge sums of money, and pay an additional £350 million a week to the NHS.

Many believed this, yet the bitter irony is that the "divorce settlement" – that is, the cost of leaving Europe – may involve paying out much larger sums of money than that.

The EU Chief Negotiator has estimated that our bill for exit may total between €40 billion to €60 billion.

I find this figure very contentious. But the bill will be substantial: billions, not millions, and very unpalatable. It will come as a nasty shock to voters who were not forewarned of this – even in the recent White Paper.

One MP has referred to the estimated divorce payment as "a threat", his argument being that "you pay to join a club but not to leave it".

Of course that is true: but when you leave any club, you are obliged to settle your debts, and that is what the European Union is going to expect the UK to do.

There are liabilities to be met: pension costs, legacy costs, contingent liabilities, a proportional share of work-in-progress. The EU will argue we have a legal obligation to pay these bills.

They may be right – but the issue is not clear-cut. Some of the EU's claims are highly questionable and – unless there is a political agreement – any dispute may have to be resolved in Court. An agreement would be preferable and, if she sanctions one, the Prime Minister will deserve support.

The EU Chief Negotiator has also warned that the separation costs must be agreed before any detailed trade negotiations can begin. However, I doubt he will be able to sustain such a hard line if we are prepared to engage in constructive talks: we shall see.

But if there is a stand-off – perhaps because of a backlash against the size of the exit bill – then trade talks may have to await a Court decision, be delayed indefinitely – or scrapped altogether. In either event, the faint hope of a comprehensive trade deal by Spring 2019 will have gone.

Without such a deal with Europe, three options arise:

we can leave the EU with a flimsy, inadequate deal; or

we can seek a transitional relationship – perhaps for 3-5 years – for which, as non-members, we would have to pay. A minimum option would involve staying in the Customs Union and submitting to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice; or

we can trade with the EU on a WTO basis.

The more one examines probabilities, the more contentious becomes the task of leaving.

Some of the most committed Brexit supporters wish to have a clean break, and trade only under WTO rules. This would require tariffs on goods – with nothing to help services, and nothing to inhibit non-tariff barriers. This would not be a panacea; for the UK – it would be the worst possible outcome.

But – to those who wish to see us adapt to a deregulated, low-tax enterprise economy – it is an attractive option, and wholly consistent with their philosophy.

However, it has worrying implications for public services such as the NHS – and for the vulnerable who, I'm delighted to say, the Government has pledged to help …. and I know how personally committed the Prime Minister is to this.

So there is a choice to be made, a price to be paid; we cannot move to a radical enterprise economy without moving away from a welfare state. Such a direction of policy, once understood by the public, would never command support. It would make all previous rows over social policy seem a minor distraction.

A new trade deal with Europe will be hugely complex. No-one should envy the Secretary of State and his negotiators. Some industries – cars and aerospace for example – hope for special, perhaps industry-to-industry, deals for their exports to Europe. The difficulties of this are legion: the chances of success are slim – not least since the German Chancellor is likely to rule out sectoral deals. Even if she does not, WTO rules expect agreements to cover all trade, not a few handpicked sectors.

Many practicalities arise: even a partial customs deal with Europe would not eliminate the need for country-of-origin certificates. Or border checks. Or certification that regulations are met. Or other frustrations. And any deal must be agreed by 27 nations, each with their own national interests. No-one can be certain how long this will take: a conclusion within two years is very, very optimistic. Business needs to factor this in to their plans.

Domestic political hurdles arise, too: if cars and aerospace were to get favourable deals, why not textiles and widgets? How would the Government soothe the ire of those not receiving preferential treatment?

Nor will free trade deals with third countries be straightforward. Even the most attractive options come with political hazards.

In Washington, the Prime Minister discussed a deal with President Trump. Both Leaders were keen, which is excellent. But the omens are mixed.

Early actions confirm that President Trump has put protectionism at the heart of his trade policy. "America First" is more than a slogan.

Tariffs between the US and the UK are already minimal: there is little scope for lowering them even further. The UK runs a healthy trade surplus with America: President Trump may wish to narrow – or eliminate – that gap. That being so, British hopes should not be set too high.

Nor will it be easy – or quick – to reach agreement on contentious issues such as medicine, or cars, or beef raised with growth hormones. In comes American beef: Out go European subsidies. That won't be an easy sell to the beef industry.

China and India are both attractive candidates for enhanced trade. But, in negotiation, India will seek immigration concessions for students and non-students alike which, prima facie, is in direct conflict with Government plans.

China, as I know from experience, is a tough negotiator, and will strike a hard bargain. As she is the largest trading partner to 120 countries, and the largest export market for 70 of them, a trade agreement with the United Kingdom may not be one of her main priorities.

The Government must also replicate the 53 deals struck on our behalf by the European Union. So far, only 12 are in play. There is a very, very long way to go, and the question arises: are 65 million Britons likely to get the same favourable outcome as 500 million Europeans?

I set out these difficulties, not because I don't think deals can be done – some certainly can – but to be realistic about the timescale and complexity of the huge undertaking that lies ahead. It is crucial to business and the public – that our expectations are consistent with what can be delivered. It matters to the Government, too: Ministers must not over-promise.

In two years' time, the UK will be the first nation to leave the EU. This will be a real irony, as the first proposal for a European Union came not – as is generally supposed – from the Frenchman, Jean Monnet, but from an Englishman.

Three and a quarter centuries ago, in 1693, William Penn advocated a European "Dyet or Parliament" as a policy to end perpetual military conflict on the Continent. It took 280 years and two world wars to convince his fellow Britons.

43 years later, the British people reversed that decision.

Let us hope – for the futures of our children and grandchildren – they were

Reports: BBC / Sky NewsGuardian

tvnewswatch, London

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Living in a world of fake news and alternative facts

It's hard to know what's real in this post-truth world where 'alternative facts' are the order of the day. But even before the age of the Internet the fuzzy lines between truth and facts have often been blurred.

Manipulating truth

How media manipulates facts or conveniently ignores important truths is nothing new. Governments keep information secret using the excuse of 'national security' and the cold reality of war may be glossed over for 'reasons of taste'. Thus whole nations may back a policy they might otherwise recoil from should they see the repercussions of a government's actions.

Uncensored footage which played out on US TV stations during the Vietnam War had a marked effect on the population and fuelled the anti-war movement.

Television long been seen by radicals as a way of controlling the masses. "Who needs controlling when they've got the cathode ray?" the Anarcho-Punk group Crass asked in its scathing attack of the medium of television in the song Nineteen Eighty Bore.

The audience were, Crass maintained, "Drained of any substance by the vicious telly blow, no longer know what's real or ain't, slowly going blind, they stare into the goggle box while the world goes by, behind." [LyricsYouTube]

In the age of the Internet we are saturated with information to such a point that many suffer from information overload. And it is easier for many to get sucked into the facile and empty sound bites uttered on both sides of an otherwise reasoned debate.


"Make America great again!", "Build a wall" and "Take our country back" have been the slogans of the Trump and Brexit campaign. Many however will look no further than the sloganeering. Sound bites are not confined to the right-wing however. Who can forget Obama's "Yes we can" mantra in his first election campaign. Powerful but meaningless slogans have become the mantra of politicians.

Such sloganeering is nothing new either. On both sides one liners have been used to add force to their argument. And quotes from figures of history are used or misused to add substance to their arguments.

In recent months Churchill, Hitler and Goebbels have all been been quoted and misquoted for the cause. Both sides in Britain's EU referendum have used Churchill as a cause célèbre. The Remain side have cited the wartime leader as one who helped found what was to become the European Union whilst the Leave campaign have selectively quoted or misquoted Churchill for their own ends [SayYes2Europe].

But of course those on the right will simply shout FAKE NEWS in response to anything they don't like.

Fake News

Soon after taking office Trump refused to answer any questions put to him by CNN labelling the organisation as "fake news" [YouTube - CNBC / YouTube - Press Conference in full CNN].

The so-called liberal press have been ignored in the last year as Britain rolled towards a vote for Brexit and America campaigned for a new president. The Guardian, New York Times, CNN and the BBC may have been shouting but few people were listening and many more were retorting that they were propaganda mouthpieces spouting lies and fear. So it was no surprise to some, such as veteran journalist John Pilger, that Trump won [YouTube - RT]

But we are where we are, another much coined phrase. And the world is on a much more dangerous course despite all the rhetoric uttered by the likes of Trump, May and Farage.

Trump and his advisers have set forth a plan that can only put the US on a path to confrontation. Within days in office Trump had signed executive orders banning individuals from several Muslim-majority countries [Guardian]. Meanwhile there has been increased rhetoric that the US will blockade China in its access of the Spratly Islands and the man-made islands within the so-called 9 dashed line [Reuters]. China's stance on the issue is bullish, maintaining that it has history on its side and that the South China Sea is part of its territory [Telegraph / Guardian]. But the US just as bullish and is building its military presence in the region as it rings China with a growing number of military bases [RT / Sun].

Ignoring real facts

But there are few in the West that are aware of what is happening in the South China Sea. Indeed China has fallen off the agenda as western media has focused on Brexit, Trump and the growing far-right populism that appears to be sweeping across parts of Europe.

Pilger has attempted to cover the concerns in his documentary The Coming War on China.

Unlike Bernstein and Munro's book The Coming Conflict with China, which concerned itself with a conflict of economics and politics, Pilger's film is very much focused on a military response to China's growing influence around the world.

In this post truth world of alternative facts there is denial of what the doomsayers, environmentalists, experts and others have been saying. Trump has been on record dismissing climate change whilst saying he wants to restart the US coal industry. Meanwhile there is a growing denial of conventional wisdom that a limited nuclear exchange would throw up dust into the upper atmosphere and create a so-called nuclear winter which could last months or even years resulting in an agricultural disaster which in turn would lead to global famine.

Nonetheless Pilger remains optimistic that such a war will not happen.

Hitler comparisons

But not everyone is so optimistic. Trump's so-called Muslim ban came into force the day after Holocaust Memorial Day and the irony was not lost on many who protested against the barring of citizens holding passports from a number of Middle Eastern and north African countries. "And so it starts," one person wrote on a Facebook post under a news item highlighting Trump's presidential order. But "Where will it end?" the same poster asks.

Even before Trump won the US election people likened him to Hitler. But as he follows through on his much talked about policies of banning Muslims, reinforcing borders and building walls such comparisons have grown.

There are of course stark differences. Trump is not as blatant as Hitler was. But just because law enforcement don't wear jackboots and wear swastikas it doesn't necessarily mean America is not on a path towards fascism.

However, there are checks and balances in American politics and the constitution does protect people's rights being eroded. But in the post-truth world one is now confronted with, how long before peoples and governments are persuaded by the lies? Can the checks and balances be cancelled out? And can a president of the free world ride roughshod over the constitution? 

Alternative facts

No sooner than Trump had been inaugurated than facts were being disputed. Sean Spicer, Trump's White House press secretary, made an angry declaration that the media faked low attendance figures and claimed their assertions did not stack up against photos, videos and public transport figures.

Donald Trump drew "the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe" Spicer declared despite clear photographic evidence showing smaller crowds than during Obama's 2009 inauguration [Guardian].

On 22nd January 2017 US Counsellor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, coined the phrase "Alternative facts" during a Meet the Press interview on NBC, as she defended White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's false statement about the attendance at Donald Trump's inauguration as President of the United States [Washington Post].

The 'alternative facts' didn't end there. Only two weeks into the presidency Kellyanne Conway made yet another major blunder as she attempted to defend Trump's so-called 'Muslim ban'.

"President Obama had a six-month ban on the Iraqi refugee program after two Iraqis came here to this country, were radicalized, and they were the masterminds between the Bowling Green massacre. Most people don't know that because it didn't get covered," Conway said during an interview with MSNBC's Chris Matthews [CNN].

However, the Bowling Green massacre didn't get covered because it didn't happen. In fact there has never been a terrorist attack in Bowling Green, Kentucky, carried out by Iraqi refugees or anyone else.

It appeared Conway was referring to two Iraqi citizens living in Bowling Green who were arrested in 2011 and eventually sentenced to federal prison for attempting to send weapons and money to al-Qaeda in Iraq for the purpose of killing US soldiers, according to a statement from the Justice Department. Conway later sent out a tweet saying that this is what she was in fact referring to. However, there was no massacre [Washington Post].

Of course, anyone can make a mistake. But to go to an interview apparently so ill-prepared is quite inept. And while Conway did put out a correction of sorts not everyone would have seen it and might still be enveloped in a world of alternative facts.

Brexit lies

The EU referendum campaign in the UK is another example where the lines between truth and lies have blurred. One of those campaigning to Leave Europe was Boris Johnson who not only claimed the EU dictated the shape and curvature of bananas but also how many might be sold as a bunch.

"It is absurd that we are told you cannot sell bananas in bunches of more than two or three," Johnson told a pro-Brexit crowd in Stafford. While he was picked up by the press for making it up as he goes along, many ignored the facts and accepted the lies [Telegraph / BBC].

But Boris continued with his alternative facts. As he arrived in Cornwall he spoke of the EU's interference on the shape of bananas.

Brandishing a Cornish pasty - which ironically is one of more than 60 British food and drink products that have protected geographical status under EU law, meaning they cannot be ripped off by imitations made elsewhere - Johnson said it was "absolutely crazy that the EU is telling us how powerful our vacuum cleaners have got to be, what shape our bananas have got to be, and all that kind of thing".

However the truth of the matter is rather mundane. Rules on vacuum cleaners is partially true, but is an attempt to cut back on energy consumption. Furthermore the rules affect only a small proportion of vacuum cleaners.

As regards bananas the so-called Brussels ban on bendy bananas is one of the EU's most persistent myths.

Bananas have always been classified by quality and size for international trade. Because the standards, set by individual governments and the industry, were confusing, the European Commission was asked to draw up new rules.

Commission regulation 2257/94 decreed that bananas in general should be "free from malformation or abnormal curvature" [BBC]. Those sold as "extra class" must be perfect, "class 1" can have "slight defects of shape" and "class 2" can have full-scale "defects of shape". Nothing is banned under the regulation [Guardian / Spectator].

Believing the lies

But many people were drawn into the lies and apparently voted on the strength of these lies. "I was voting remain and at the very last minute I changed my decision and I went to leave," an audience member on BBC Question Time said recently, adding, "The reason because of that is because of… I go to a supermarket and a banana is straight. I'm just sick of the silly rules that come out of Europe." [Sun / Mirror / Daily Mail].

The Leave campaign has also been taken to task over other campaign lies such as the extra £350 million that could be spent on the NHS instead of being used as Britain's daily EU membership fee. The detail over facts and figures has been somewhat lost in time but even days after members of the pro-Brexit camp such as UKIP's Nigel Farage were calling the famous bus slogan "a mistake".

He told ITV's Good Morning Britain that the pledge came from others in the Leave campaign and that it was their "mistake" to loudly earmark £350 million for the health service during the campaign.

However, only days before Nigel Farage had said EU cash should be spent on the National Health Service after Brexit [Independent].

Prior to the vote former PM John Major made a withering assessment of leading members of Vote Leave, calling their campaign deceitful, untrue, depressing, awful and "verging on the squalid".

Major claimed Gove had wanted to privatise the NHS, Johnson wished to charge people for health services and Duncan Smith advocated moving to a social insurance system. "The NHS is about as safe with them as a pet hamster would be with a hungry python," Major said on BBC1's The Andrew Marr Show [Guardian].

This wasn't the first U-turn by the Leave camp. Soon after the PM Theresa May declared Britain would not seek to maintain access to the Single Market those in the Leave camp conveniently forgot about their mantra that Britain would not have to leave the Single Market [YouTube - Open Britain]

U-turns or abandoned promises are of course nothing new but the Brexit campaign was perhaps awash with them more than any other in living memory [YouTube].

Far Right battle cries

It is not just Britain and America experiencing a post-truth world. Across parts of Europe the electorate are being subject to lies and half-truths.

In France the election is being fought in a post-Brexit, post-Trump, post-truth atmosphere with the Far-Right in particular seeking to capitalise on the back of Brexit and Trump whilst slandering the opposition [Guardian].

Speaking on CNN Marine Le Pen the French Presidential Candidate for the National Front claimed that Crimea "has always been Russian" and that what happened was a "Coup d'Etat".

CNN's international correspondent appeared shocked at Le Pen's answers. "Does it not bother you that a big country broke international law and invaded and annexed a small country?" Amanpour asked. "There was a coup d'etat in Ukraine…" Le Pen retorted.

"That's what you think?" Amanpour asked.

"It's not just what I think, it's the reality. There was a coup d'etat. There was an agreement among different nations and the next day this agreement was broken and some people took power…"

Amanpour forced the issue in an attempt to clarify Le Pen's position. "After the invasion and the annexation…Yes!"

"There was no invasion of Crimea…" Le Pen once again asserted

"But they [Russia] annexed Crimea! It was part of Ukraine! And the French were part of the deal that guaranteed the independence of Ukraine in 1994," Amanpour told her.

"Crimea was Russian. It has always been Russian," Le Pen insisted [CNN / Full Transcript].

While the issues surrounding Ukraine and Crimea are indeed complicated Le Pen's opinions on the matter are somewhat disturbing [Telegraph].

Rising nationalism

Nonetheless, Le Pen is riding on a wave of nationalism and populism that could see her seizing power. It would be a win that could set France into a spin, politically economically and sociologically [Guardian].

France has had a long tradition of tolerance. Its motto is Liberté, égalité, fraternité and whilst a somewhat conservative society it has long lived under a flag of socialist values too.

A France under Le Pen could set the country on a far more tumultuous route than Brexit has with Britain [NYT / Newsweek].

There are very real fears that not only Le Pen but other far-Right candidates could seize power across Europe. However organisations such as Rue89 believe that the French political system will save at least France from such an outcome.

Existential crises

Part of the problem faced by voters is the very real issue of so-called Fake News. Recently Christiane Amanpour wrote a piece suggesting that since Trump the very nature of journalism was in an "existential crisis".

"I believe in being truthful, not neutral. And I believe we must stop banalizing the truth," Amanpour wrote. "And we have to be prepared to fight especially hard for the truth in a world where the Oxford English Dictionary just announced its word of 2016: 'post-truth' " [CNN]

Such concerns are heightened by the fact the world now has a US president who essentially calls anything he doesn't like or agree with 'Fake News'.

When polls appeared to show most people did not agree with his travel ban President Trump declared the polls were fake. "Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election. Sorry, people want border security and extreme vetting," Trump tweeted.

His war on the media has been consistent both throughout his campaign and during his first days in office. At some rallies, some Trump supporters even yelled a term used by the Nazis, "Lugenpresse" (translation: lying press), at media staff members [TimeCNN /CNN]

Trump's latest attacks on the media are extremely dangerous. At a CIA meeting Trump declared "I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth" [CNN]. He's called out individual reporters for alleged bias. He's insisted that the media as a whole is failing. But now he has accused the media for covering up or under-reporting terror attacks [Washington Post / Guardian].

"You've seen what happened in Paris, and Nice. All over Europe, it's happening. It's gotten to a point where it's not even being reported. And in many cases the very, very dishonest press doesn't want to report it," Trump told senior US military commanders and coalition representatives on 6th February at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida [Washington Post].

Quite how much coverage Trump would want to see is unclear. Some of the incidents on his list might have got front page headlines in one country but only a mention in foreign press. But every incident on Trump's list was covered, some extensively [Guardian].

Effects of fake news

There is an irony however in Trump's attacks on the media. Whilst there may well be a large number of Trump supports abandoning traditional media sources, some such sources have seen audience numbers and sales rise. For example The New York Times, one of Mr Trump's favourite voodoo dolls, which he has repeatedly admonished on Twitter and in rallies, is doing very well out of the new president. In the three weeks after his election, it sold 132,000 digital subscriptions - a tenfold increase [CNBC / BBC].

But the issues concerning fake news are not going away.

Facebook was singled out during the US election as providing a platform for Fake News. Such items have also been said by some to have influenced people in the way they voted.

While slow to react to the criticism Facebook has now set up a 'fake news' filter for the country in the lead up to national elections in France. It follows a similar decision it made with regards to the upcoming German elections [FT]. Google has also joined forces in seeking to weed out 'fake news' stories in France ahead of the country's presidential election [Reuters].

While the effects of fake news on Brexit and the US election are highly subjective and open to debate, the effects on some individuals has been very real.

One refugee who became a victim of fake news is now suing Facebook accusing the social network of aiding incitement by spreading posts with false claims he was an Islamist terrorist [NYT / CNN].

In the Soviet Union of the nineteen-seventies and eighties everyone knew that everything said on the radio or on television, everything - with the exception of weather reports or sports results - was a blatant lie.

But in today's world where we have rejected experts, readily absorbed 'fake news', dismissed real journalism as 'fake news' and even vote on the basis of believing government bodies dictate on the shape of fruit, the world of truth has become ever more blurred and fuzzy.

In the 1930s when an electorate voted for Hitler they might be forgiven for not being fully informed. Some 80 or so years on people are saturated with information to the point that many suffer from information overload. Furthermore the public have to make their own minds up what is fiction and what is fact. And it's more difficult than one might think [Salon].

There is a very real danger that not knowing what is real or fake could send us all into a very dark dystopian world indeed [New Yorker].

Irony and satire

In recent months some have sought light relief by satirizing the situation, from Brexit, votes based on nonexistent laws on bananas, nonexistent inauguration crowds and other bizarre quirks related to the new US president such as his demeanor, hand size and haircut. Humour can provide relief and some, such as the New Yorker, see it as a political weapon.

But US president Donald Trump's new administration seems impervious to parody, and shows no signs of changing tactics even if Trump himself gets a little peeved by his Saturday Night Live sketches calling them  "unwatchable" and "totally biased" [Time].

Sean Spicer has also been parodied on SNL with great affect and in fact the recent satirical sketches have in fact boosted ratings [Washington Post]. 

Saturday Night Live has recorded 22-year high ratings as a result of its scathing attacks on US president Donald Trump and his White House spokesman Sean Spicer, drawing an average audience of 10.6 million viewers [Daily Mail].

But as Hannah Arendt, a philosopher who dissected the rise of totalitarianism during the Second World War, showed in 1951, political lies aren't funny at all [Quartz].

Ultimately, humans are fallible judges of the truth. Scientific studies have shown that determining a statement is false takes more mental energy than simply accepting it as true. It would be exhausting to go through life questioning everything around us, and so humans are naturally inclined to judge what we see and hear as truth. Indeed even if papers attempt to clarify things many will dismiss this as - you've guessed it - fake news [Mirror]. Research indicates that frequently repeating a lie further creates "the illusion of truth." [Researchgate]

Herein lies another irony. Since the birth of fake news and alternative facts those on the side of truth have incorrectly cited the Nazi Joseph Goebbels as having said, "If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it, and you will even come to believe it yourself." In fact Goebbels never said this or a number of other quotes often attributed to him [Truth is the Greatest Enemy of the State].

Whilst attributed to Goebbels it is likely the quote is drawn instead from "War Propaganda", volume 1, chapter 6 of Mein Kampf (1925), by Adolf Hitler. Often referred to as the Big Lie, the expression was coined by Adolf Hitler, when he dictated his 1925 book Mein Kampf, about the use of a lie so "colossal" that no one would believe that someone "could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously." Hitler falsely claimed the technique was used by Jews to blame Germany's loss in World War I on German general Erich Ludendorff, who was a prominent nationalist and antisemitic political leader in the Weimar Republic.

It is truth that is the enemy of the state. But knowing what the truth is has become harder to determine. And some might say, just like Magritte's painting The Treachery of Images, truth and fact is all a matter of perspective [YouTube].

tvnewswatch, London

Monday, January 23, 2017

Brexit may turn Brits into Swedes as we all go lagom

Sweden is perhaps best known for ABBA, The Cardigans, IKEA, meatballs, and Volvos. But the word lagom has entered the British lexicon and is likely to become the epitome of 2017.

Austerity and recession have yet to hit the British economy despite claims by the Remain camp that a vote to leave the EU would lead to economic ruin. But the British pound has crashed since the referendum resulting in a gradual increase in the cost of living. In December inflation rose to 1.6%, up from 1.2% in November and the highest rate since July 2014 [BBC]. And many manufacturers and suppliers are beginning to increase prices as the cost of imports increase.

For those with fluidity and disposable income a rise in the price of fuel, Marmite and a plethora of products made by Unilever and Premier Foods will mean little [BBC].

But there is a certain 'clique' of society who, whilst not scraping a living, will be looking at ways to make cutbacks. And this is where Sweden is making an influence.

Before Brexit the only Swedish words people might have known would be have been those associated with IKEA products.

But in recent weeks there have been countless articles indoctrinating the British public into a very Swedish phenomenon, that of lagom.

Going lagom

Lagom roughly translates as 'just enough' or 'not too little, not too much'. In Sweden it is said to be the philosophy of life. But it is creeping into the UK.

Recently IKEA pushed out a sales pitch on the benefits of lagom entitled "Live Lagom" whilst a Daily Mirror article published last November reported that lagom helped one former student clear her overdraft.

Danny Robbins play Cold Swedish Winter, which focuses on the Swedish way of life and lagom in particular, is being rerun on BBC Radio 4

Meanwhile the Daily Mail reported in its Femail section that lagom has the benefit of bringing happiness.

Hype and conspiracy 

Apparently the Brits all went a little bit Danish in 2016 — snuggling up in hand-knitted blankets, lighting pine-scented candles and sipping hot chocolate.

"We were embracing the cosiness Danes call hygge", the Daily Mail declared. Hygge was, essentially, a lifestyle all about cosiness [BBC]. However some argued the phenomenon was more a conspiracy to sell everything from fluffy socks to cashmere cardigans, wine, wallpaper and vegan shepherd's pie [Guardian].

But whether or not hygge was ever in vogue in 2016 or a conspiracy to increase sales of fluffy socks, the buzzword for 2017 is most definitely lagom.

The year of lagom

Pronounced lar-gom it's one of the most frequently used words in Sweden — you'll eat a lagom amount of food, live in a lagom house and drive a lagom car. In other words, just good enough to enjoy life but not over-the-top or ostentatious [Evening Standard].

Swedes have taken this approach to life with a passion and little if any cynicism. But in a post-Brexit Britain embracing lagom could prove beneficial. It of course might be hard to swallow both for Remainers and Brexiters. Both might argue why one should be 'forced' to change one's lifestyle because of the EU referendum.

But sadly facts are facts - unless one is living in Trump's post-truth world of 'alternative facts' [BBC / Guardian / Independent] and post-Brexit Britain is going to get more expensive.

Apparently the Swedes are happier than us and much is put down to lagom [Huffington Post]. But can Brits embrace lagom?

Whether Living Lagom can sweeten the taste of leaving the EU or merely soften the economic blow remains to be seen. Whilst you mull over these thoughts why not just relax and enjoy another Swedish concept, that of Fika - a coffee break where friends gather, drink coffee and eat cake. Fika is perhaps one instance where you can have your cake and eat it [Evening Standard].

tvnewswatch, London

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Theresa May sets out her plan for Britain

Theresa May has set out her plan for Britain as she embarks upon leaving the EU [BBC]. But while her speech clarified some details in her Brexit plan, most notably her decision that she would not seek to retain access to the Single Market, other details were less than clear. Indeed for some the plan was more one of hopes and dreams than definite intentions.

No Single Market

In her address the British PM said the UK "cannot possibly" remain within the European single market, as staying in it would mean "not leaving the EU at all".

But the prime minister promised to push for the "freest possible trade" with European countries and to sign new deals with others around the world.

Such a plan would place the UK in a similar position as Canada which has recently signed a free-trade deal with Europe. However such a deal could take up to a decade or more to negotiate.

Customs Union

Whilst she abandoned the idea of retaining access to the single market she said she did wish to negotiate a customs agreement with the EU. Such a plan has been likened to an agreement Turkey has with the EU.

May failed to mention anything concerning the European Free Trade Association [EFTA]. A free trade area is one where there are no tariffs or taxes or quotas on goods and/or services from one country entering another.

The negotiations to establish them can take years and there are normally exceptions. So agriculture and fisheries might be exempted, certain industries protected and some goods may not be covered.

Also imported goods would have to comply with the law of the country they are being sold in. So, for example, you could have a free trade agreement with the US but still a ban on the import of GM foods or different safety standards for electrical goods.

There is a free trade zone in Europe, which the UK helped to create. EFTA, the European Free Trade Association, counts Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein as members.

The EU has free trade arrangements with many other countries in Europe and beyond, including Turkey and Ukraine and countries that are applying to join the EU.

So how is a customs union different from a free trade area? The key difference is that the countries that club together agree to apply the same tariffs to goods from outside the union.

Once goods have cleared customs in one country they can be shipped to others in the union without further tariffs being imposed [BBC].

Complicated negotiations

But negotiations on such matters could be extremely complicated. Indeed such matters could well be delayed as the EU negotiating team has already stated that matters on trade might not be discussed during the two year period set aside in Article 50.

Last November Michel Barnier, the European Commission's chief Brexit negotiator, said the UK would have only 18 months to negotiate a deal and this would only cover some aspects of the 'divorce' [Guardian].

He made clear that any trade arrangement was of a "different legal nature" to a withdrawal agreement and would take longer to agree than divorce. "You cannot do everything in 15-18 months of negotiations; you have to take things in the right order," he said. The sequence of talks is significant because British ministers had hoped to complete a trade deal in short order with the EU, or at least have clarity on transition arrangements within the first year of Brexit negotiations at the latest, so that businesses have time to prepare [FT].

Thus it is still not clear what Theresa May can negotiate for in the 18 months following the triggering of Article 50, nor what she will be able to walk away with.

WTO option

Some have also raised concerns that the PM's approach could create friction with the WTO. Emma Reynolds, MP for Wolverhampton North East, tweeted, "PM's middle way on customs union could fall foul of WTO rules, customs union must cover the majority of trade between two countries."

This would not bode well for Britain especially if, as some believe, the country resorts to WTO rules, often referred to as a hard or diamond-hard Brexit.

May has already made clear that no deal, with the EU, is better than a bad deal. But should the UK fall back on WTO tariffs British industry could be hit very badly.

Speaking at the International Trade Committee Mike Hawes from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders said going to WTO rules "could threaten the viability of the UK automotive sector" with some £1,500 added to the cost of each car sold.

Moreover, leaving customs union would result in additional costs because of delays to parts deliveries sourced from elsewhere in Europe. European manufacturers might see the European market as more important than UK market and thus EU manufacturers would "align with political imperative of their home country".

In addition current UK-built cars do not have enough "local content" to abide by free trade agreements, because of current level of EU made parts.

Political fallout

While the pound gained on the back of May's speech there was fallout too on the likely prospect Britain head for a hard Brexit. The Italian daily La Repubblica commented, "Out of the EU, out of common market, out of everything. It appears that Theresa May's intention through negotiations with the EU at the end of March is 'a hard Brexit' - a very hard Brexit indeed." [BBC]  

German firms were reported to scale back investment in the UK as it heads for a 'hard brexit', according to Germany's Chamber of Commerce and Industry [DIHK].

"There now will be less investment from German companies in Britain," Volker Treier, head of the DIHK's trade division, told Reuters.

He also said that a hard Brexit would impair growth both in Britain and the rest of Europe, and that the UK would probably become less important for Germany as export destination.

Meanwhile the Czech Europe Minister, Tomas Prouza, tweeted "UK's plan seems a bit ambitious" and appeared to criticise the apparent 'cake and eat it approach' espoused by May. "Trade as free as possible, full control on immigration... where is the give for all the take?" he asked.

May's plans were also criticised by Guy Verhofstadt, named as the European Parliament's lead negotiator on Brexit [Twitter].

It was an "illusion" for Theresa May to suggest "that you can go out of the single market, that you can go out of the customs union and that you can cherry-pick, that you can have still a number of advantages - I think that will not happen".

Michael Fuchs, a close conservative ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, also accused Theresa May of "cherry-picking".

Creating a tax haven

As for Britain's politicians they were essentially split into two camps with those in the leave camp waving flags whilst those on the other side sought to pick holes in the PM's speech.

Lib Dem leader Tim Farron was quick to criticise May's announcement that Britain would quit the single market, saying it would be bad for jobs and industry [Twitter]. Writing in the Guardian he added it amounted to "a mixture of vague fantasies, and toothless threats to our nearest neighbours."   

Meanwhile Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Theresa May was determined to use Brexit to strip away workers rights and turn the UK into a tax haven [Independent].

Theresa May might have a plan, but she is still stepping into a minefield with no clear path and no determinate length.

It appears clear to some however that May's vision might just be a tax haven on Europe's doorstep. In an interview with a German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, the Chancellor Philip Hammond said the UK is willing to do "whatever we have to" to bounce back after Brexit even if it meant ripping up its economic model and become the tax haven of Europe [Independent].

The Dutch daily Algemeen Dagblad called the prime minister's speech "not just a bit of Brexit but the full whack".

"Bye bye EU... the unspoken, big threat from London is creating a tax paradise in front of the gates of Europe," it said.

tvnewswatch, London

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

2017 - A not so happy start to the new year

Many people focus on the new year as a cause for celebration. But for a lot of people it can create more than a few problems. Some might look back on the year and, thinking of the bad or tumultuous events, will feel less than enthusiastic about celebrating.

One could also look back on a bad year and, after reflection, come to the conclusion that "things can only get better". 

The song with the same refrain was famously used when Tony Blair won Labour's 1997 General Election. But when it was recently played at a Labour party event the current leader Jeremy Corbyn was reportedly less than impressed, although some dispute these accounts [Mirror]. Whatever the truth of those events, Corbyn will be even less impressed by polls published soon after the new year celebrations which indicate Labour is on course to win fewer than 200 seats for the first time since 1935 in any future election [BBC].

2017 had barely started before violence marred the festivities. As the midnight clock chimed and the world welcomed in 2017 the celebrations were marred with violence as an Islamic State terrorist burst into a Turkish night club in Istanbul killing 39 and injuring many others [BBC / CNN].

Hundreds woke up in France to find their cars torched in what had become has become an annular display of protest in deprived cities across the region [The Local]. The figures were up on last year which had seen a drop in the number of such incidents [BBC]. According to the French interior ministry, the total of 945, which included cars that were either "totally destroyed" or "more lightly affected", amounted to a 17% compared to 2016 [Telegraph].

There were no such scenes of violence in London or across Britain, although there were some fights and drunken brawls [Daily Mail]. Meanwhile security services, concerned that terrorists might strike, prompted increased security patrols [The Sun].

While cars burned in France, it was the New Year performances by well-known stars that raised temperatures in Britain and the US.

In Britain the singer Robbie Williams welcomed in the new year with a live performance on the BBC. But even his fans felt somewhat disappointed especially by his singing which was rather flat and out of tune. "Wow, Robbie Williams nearly hit some of the right notes in that last song!" one viewer exclaimed on Twitter.

Jokes about his daughter's vagina and attempts at humour by swearing on the BBC were also considered somewhat poor taste and childish. "I'm sorry @robbiewilliams but that "vagina" gag was despicable" Mr J in the UK tweeted whilst Katherine posted, "I'm really confused as to why Robbie Williams decided New Years was the time to discuss not taking pics with fans & his daughter's vagina???"

Others were also perturbed over his use of hand sanitiser on New Year's Eve after shaking hands with fans. One viewer tweeted "Robbie Williams sanitising his hand after touching the public is the most hysterical start to a new year ever. The year of memes commences."

The singer has responded to the incident by posting a tongue in cheek video in which he hugs a woman before reaching for a large bottle of sanitiser and shudders as he rubs it into his hands [Evening Standard].

Hours later Mariah Carey created an even bigger reaction on social media after technical issues made her look less than professional as she struggled to lip sync to some of her well known hits [BBC / Telegraph]. Video footage of the disastrous performance has been pulled from many news websites over legal rights issues although clips are still on YouTube.

Of course such things pale into insignificance when looked at the backdrop of New Year terror attacks that struck Turkey and Iraq [Wikipedia / Reuters].

But wherever one was as 2017 began, it did seem to start on a rather sour note.

Let's hope that things do get better as the aforementioned song refrains.

tvnewswatch, London