UK-EU talks: the British proposal

We have a text. The British negotiators have published the draft free trade agreement submitted to the European Union. Having read it, I must conclude that the European Commission should be biting our hands to sign the thing while the offer is there.

The draft agreement is wholly different in its approach from the version the European Union proposed (and which was immediately rejected). It starts not from the idea of the European Union system continuing in essence, but from the norms of international trade agreed in the framework of the World Trade Organisation (the creation of which was one of John Major’s successes). It would be an arrangement worthy of Brexit, and it still gives the European Union what it most needs, namely tariff-free trade, fair, open procurement rules and protection of intellectual property.

There are things missing. The British text does not have a reliable provision against state aid; just a brief set of provisions in Article 21. Solid obligations are needed though for the occasions when the French government (in particular) subsidises its home industries. The EU text does have detailed provisions on state aid, though allowing the Commission to wink at it anyway, which is no good from the British perspective. In addition, the text does not have a provision for co-ordinating VAT, and specifically allow cross-border tax reclaims. (See ‘Where the Remainers were right‘). There may be a good reason for this though, which awaits a second stage, and the reasons are why the Commission should hurry to sign.

This is not to say that it is bare document – on the contrary, it is 292 pages long, and it contains detail on areas not covered by the European Commission’s proposal.

One could run through the Political Declaration and tick off points which are covered and those not yet here: it does not have the declaration about human rights commitments or data protection. They are not forgotten. Most of the points in the Political Declaration that go beyond actual trade could be handled in text no longer than that which appears in the Declaration already. (The European Commission’s draft takes such paragraphs, gold-plates them and wraps them in ermine until they betray the tight text agreed with Boris Johnson.) The omitted will be needed, in the original form, but at the next stage.

There could be a good reason for omitting provisions on VAT and state aid, as examples. That reason is found in the way the European Union is constituted. Its institutions have a broad remit of exclusive jurisdiction, which includes trade matters and standards, and in these areas of ‘exclusive competence’, the European Union can sign a treaty alone. However where a matter falls within the joint competence of the Union and of the member states, then any treaty requires the concurrence of each and every member state (and Belgium cannot sign without each of its three regions agreeing). The member states of the European Union are not currently feeling co-operative, not even with each other let alone with Britain. The chances of getting 26 + 3 signatures to a complex document in the time allowed are so low that they can be discounted. Therefore the first stage needs a treaty which is fully within the exclusive competence of the European Union. Therefore the Commission should be keen to get that under their belts.

This is only the first stage then: free trade is the main prize but both sides still want agreement on state aid and VAT, and fishing, amongst other areas. Those trespass into joint competence: to bind the hands of the French government from its tendency to ‘corporate welfare’, the signature of that government is needed, and to direct the tax authorities of the member states likewise. Therefore if a treaty such as that proposed is signed, it is only the first, necessary stage and does not conclude the trade talks.

The second stage intimately affects the interest of the member states, and it is in their interests to conclude additional agreements. If negotiators aim to have a single, vast document on all matters, then any single member state or Belgian region could hold the whole thing up like Horatius on the bridge, in order to force some unprincipled concession, with the pages of the calendar passing inexorably. However, if the main deal were done, then there is less blackmail value, and it will be easier to reach settlement on all other points.

This being the case, all sides should hasten to sign an agreement which is essentially the British text, and then move on to stage 2.

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The dawn is coming after night

The lockdown is ending, willy-nilly, planned or unplanned. The nation is beginning to come to life in places. The roads are becoming busy in the towns. More shops which had no need to close are opening. Others wait, ready. Some pubs and chipshops cannot let customers in, but have found e-businesses eager to take a share, with deliveries.

Here, the parish council found it did not need the army of volunteers it recruited – I was never called on once. They might soon take down the odd annoyingly unscientific rainbow poster. Their poster rainbow has three stripes, of yellow, blue and red: that is not a rainbow , it is the Miranda flag as used by Venezuela, a country of endless bread queues, shortages, empty shops, crushing unemployment, where the police harass innocent people on the street. Actually they may have a point.

Shops are now reopening locally, not all, but enough, and DIY shops and gardening centres.

Still, London is a ghost-town, which shows how artificial it was in the first place. Oxford Street, once packed shoulder-to-shoulder with shoppers and gawpers is like an abandoned town of the Old West. The life has gone out of it because all these businesses are interrelated: the shops are mainly deemed non-essential (and non-affordable to be honest). In normal days, customers come to the shops and dip into the cafes and pubs. The food shops are permitted to open but their customers, the office workers and shop workers, are forbidden from coming to them. A little beyond, the theatres are standing empty, and even if cafés and restaurants are opened, they are fed by the theatre crowds and so until the theatres reopen, they are going bankrupt.

A little loosening will bring the beginnings of life, the glimmerings of dawn, but until the roar of commerce begins in its full vigour, all will suffer, even those businesses nominally permitted to open.

All for one disease that is passing, and causing harm to families most affected, while the lockdown is harming every family.

There is though some hope that the powers that be are relenting. House arrest has ended. The sombrero has been squashed and we are running down the other side. Dr Lockdown has been forced to resign – but how his XR-supporting mistress must have glowed when he closed the economy, but now his power is gone and we have just timid politicians in charge, with more normal scientists. We are now told the alert is now down form ‘4’ to ‘3’ and await hearing what that actually means.

Outside London the streets are filling again and people are no longer avoiding each other as they did. Masks are no longer the fashion accessory du jour. It is ending whether the Government is ready or not. It will be over when the village pub reopens and the street cafés buzz again as crowds spill from the dizzying theatres, when office workers from Dover to Dundee go out in herds every lunchtime for sandwiches and presents for their wives and husbands, when tourist cramp shoulder-to-shoulder along the Royal Mile pouring down from the castle and the shopkeepers reap a prosperous harvest from their pockets.

I hear the gathering roar in the distance as the crowd presses against the door, creaking and ready to buckle. Give my liberty and we have prosperity.

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I have measured out my life with coffee spoons

Another day draws past, undistinguished from other days, and weeks pass. Is this what retirement is like? But I am not retired and I work, now from home, and occasionally London now that this is smiled upon with an askance look.

Day runs into day, hour into another coffee waiting for the dishwasher to fill – that is how time runs.

This cannot be any new normality. It is a collective coma. If I become despairing, what must it be like for those who suffer mental stresses? Many new MPs of a few months ago (it seems forever ago) spoke to say their major concern is mental health, which is as worthy a cause as one can find (and I will write about Hobbes’s observations on the subject before too long), but of all the things to do, this lockdown is a mental health disaster, and for years after the last coronavirus patient has risen from their bed, the trauma of confinement will haunt many, many in their homes, leading to rash actions and choices, and worse disasters ahead. For the sake of sanity it must end.

Another week looms though, unreleased. I can stretch my legs, and take long, long walks from home, but I have to work proper hours, distracted, staring at the work to be done in the garden – and remembering how fortunate I am to have a garden when many are confined to two-room flats. How must they be at this time?

I have long since lost track of time, the weeks, which day it is sometimes, because there is no familiar rhythm beyond the call of the stomach, which is dangerous so close to the cake cupboard, and with loss of time comes the temptation to head out to clear my head in the fields – and each time I think of those who do not have that luxury.

Lethargy loses its charm soon enough. End the lockdown, please, Mr Johnson. I would rather get the disease, even if it is as bad as you had it, then last through more of this. I am resolved though never to retire if this is what it is like.

Another coffee. Another coffee spoon. Whatever the time is, I do not know any more but by counting the used spoons in the bowl.

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Sturgeon: Scotland has its own, distinct coronavirus

Nicola Sturgeon has clarified that she is taking different measures from the civilised world because Scotland has a different coronavirus.

She insists that Scotland has an independent epidemic with distinct, Scottish characteristics, and that attempts to impose the same lockdown rules as England are a colonial mentality which do not take account of distinct needs of the Corona-Caledoni.

The First Minister insisted the ‘the English disease is not for us: we have developed our own coronavirus disease with no help from the English – they did not even offer to help.’

She points to the difference between the new Scottish coronavirus and the English disease, as she calls it: English COVID-19 causes pneumonia, fever, coughing fits and lung damage, while the Scottish malady causes shortness o braith, coch an’ fiver. Deaths of the diseases are only 2,000, while Mr Johnson’s disease has killed 30,000 in England – which is all due to the toughness of Scots and the foresight of her government in ensuring an independent disease for Scotland, and certainly not because Scotland’s population is half that of London’s.

‘Independent diseases are the way forward for Scotland’ she says. ‘We should not have to wait to receive whatever is left over across the border. We have scientists working on the project constantly: Scotland was once the foremost centre of medical science, and soon it will rival China for the development of deadly maladies.’

In a wide-ranging speech, Nicola blamed the current position variously on the English, the Tories and the English Tories and insisted that the disease the Scotland has will be handled according the specific need for Scotland to keep voting for her party.

‘The English’, she insists ‘are beginning to reopen their society, but we will stand firm to ensure that the petty rises in unemployment seen there are beaten by wholesale economic re-adjustment in Scotland. It must not be forgotten that the economy in Scotland was tanking long before this epidemic, and if we can stay the course, the people of Scotland will understand that their collapse into poverty is the result of a disease sent to us by the English, and nothing at all to do with having the levers of government in the hands of a group of obsessive numpties.’

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How easy to lose the peace

The victory was an overwhelming victory of a scale unknown in modern times, or any age of man: the greatest land power of Europe was occupied across its whole breadth such that surrender was almost unnecessary as it had ceased to be, and not just there, but victory was achieved across the world. Even greater than these, it produced a peace which has lasted 75 years in which time war between great nations in Europe has become unthinkable.

However, the peace was lost. It often is.

The crowds cheered Churchill when Germany was defeated and they knew that it was his words and his determination to action behind them which had driven the nation to victory – he inspired, he uplifted, he gave purpose to the grimmest of struggles, and silently in the secretive corridors of power he did not relax but ensured the right people (not the ‘approved’ people) were in charge of the war effort. The victory was his (and Vera Lynn’s).

Then two and a half months later, the people turfed Churchill out of office and installed Clement Attlee.

Having defeated national socialism, the Britons installed their own socialism. Attlee’s socialist government wrecked the economy and dissolved the Empire we had just fought to preserve. He was out after 6 years, but the long-term damage was done.

The end of the war could have allowed Britain and the Empire to be stronger than ever. Instead Britain, shorn of empire, began a steep decline such that it came to be accepted as our inevitable destiny, and we could not longer understand how we had been so great. That pathological defeatism is still with us in spite of all the proof against it. America on the other had rose further, in confidence and strength.

For Poland and Czechoslovakia, in whose names we went to war in the first place, it was a very bitter victory.

There are many examples in history of great nations destroying themselves in victory. Maybe we forget them because they disappeared. Far in our classical past, Sparta’s military system made its neighbours enemies and destroyed its own strength. Alexander following on conquered the Persian Empire but so absorbed Persian ways to rule it that his courtiers despaired that they had placed all Greece under a Persian king after all, and then tore the empire apart on his death. Greeks, Romans, Gauls, Germanic tribes and empires all tumbled at the point of victory. In 1763, Britain at last dominated North America, but then in consolidating its conquests drove the colonists into successful rebellion. In our generation, those Arab and Afghan men who rebelled against oppressors – how sore they feel now as someone else seized their victory.

Attlee then threw away the rewards that could have come of Churchill’s victory. The main reward of victory for the world, namely destruction of the Nazi menace, was undiminished. There could have so much more though. America rose to undreamed-of prosperity, while Britain’s recovery was stunted at birth. After 1951, Churchill and his successors began to recover, but were shackled to a deathly consensus form of government that was not broken until 1979. Whitehall was also by then riddled with Communist agents, which caused America to take sole control of the nuclear and rocketry programmes which had started as joint ventures. America became a titan of the Space race, while impoverished Britain launched but a single satellite. How had the mighty fallen.

The Suez Crisis could have restored confidence, but its failure sapped the remaining confidence we might have had. In 1982, Argentina invaded and occupied the Falkland Islands, and Whitehall was ready to give in at once – had it not been for the First Sea Lord bursting uninvited into the Cabinet Room, they would have. The swift victory in the islands was a waking up, a start to reclaiming the older victory.

After 75 years of peace, we have grown soft, and you might say we won the peace just so we could relax and soften, but challenges do not cease. If we forget what is possible, there will be no resistance to the next bloody invader or dictator. Hitler wanted to destroy our power but we destroyed it for him, if not in the way he thought, thank goodness.

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