ABHI Membership

ABHI Brexit Update: A Sane Response

Between you and I, I have been having trouble getting into the swing of it these past couple of weeks. I don’t know what is wrong with me. Maybe I am just getting old, and those glimpses of what retirement might look, that holidays offer, grow ever more appealing. Not that there is any prospect of that, what with a 10-year-old whose feet are already bigger than her Mother’s and is well past the VAT free sanctuary of the children’s clothes section. Thank heavens, for now at least, for Peacocks and Primark. That and the fact that our cottage has become so enamoured with the view of Newlyn Harbour, it has decided to start slipping into it. So, and you know the refrain, I owe, I owe, it’s off to work I go. Indefinitely. Maybe it is that my usual long summer break has been somewhat curtailed this year, and the period of August when, for much of the last decade, I have been well and truly off the grid in the Wild West, has been spent at my desk.

My plight has not been helped by the Groundhog Day nature of things. I was up at silly o’clock the other day, off to yet another Brexit roundtable and there was Irish PM Leo Varadkar on the radio telling me that there was no prospect of the EU reopening the Withdrawal Agreement. It is manna for the swivel eyes in the Cabinet, and the No.10 propaganda machine whirrs away unceasingly. The Press are buying it too, the real problem here is aggressive, intransigent Europeans intent on beating up dear old Blighty. Johnny Foreigner cannot be trusted. It is like we went to bed and woke up in 1940. The main problem, of course, remains the Irish border. Europe looks on at the bull and bluster incredulous. They have just as strong an obligation to their citizens in the Republic of Ireland as the UK does to its citizens in the North. Never mind the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, the peace process or the extent to which the US is vested in it all.

There have been casualties. Special Advisers are disappearing quicker than Ministers in Theresa May’s Cabinet. Some have reached the, not unreasonable, conclusion that working 18-hour days, seven days a week with no prospect of a break before November is simply not worth it, and have walked. Those showing absolutely any sign of squeamishness about a no deal have been sought out and dismissed. Our Ambassadors have been told to distance themselves from their European counterparts. Now, there is adopting a strong negotiating position, there is brinkmanship and there is not having a clue what you are doing. In times of crisis, if this is what this has become, the sane response is to not just maintain, but to strengthen one’s relationships with allies that might offer soft support. That is, after all, why we have a Diplomatic Service.

It has not been all bad. Boris met Merkel and Macron this week. The leaders of Europe’s most powerful nations may not have exactly extended an olive branch, but they have made positive noises that there may yet be a way forward. The impetus, though, is on the UK to come up with something that is close enough to the existing Withdrawal Agreement to be palatable to the EU27. That means some sort of compromise on the Irish “backstop.”

If you saw Newsnight on Wednesday, you may find additional  cause for optimism. Editor-in-Chief of German tabloid Bild Julian Reichelt came up with this. “I predict we will end up with something that’s a no-deal Brexit with so many side agreements, that it’s basically a Brexit deal. That is the classic way of Angela Merkel: not giving in, but giving in.”

That would be good in the event we do actually leave. More may become clearer tomorrow when Boris is back in France, this time Biarritz, for the G7 summit. The Trump is also there, but the sunny uplands of a trade deal with the US post-Brexit may well come with 51st State type strings. Our friends at the admirable Politico suggest that in exchange for a U.S. trade deal, “Trump expects the U.K. to renege on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. He also expects Johnson to follow the U.S. in shutting Chinese telecoms giant Huawei out of public tenders for 5G mobile communications infrastructure.” Given that Huawei are the only ones with the technology to make 5G work, that might be a problem in Birmingham. The City, whose digital credentials are impressive is one of those piloting 5G, and one of the target sectors is health. The opportunity that 5G provides to bring the hospital to the patient is exciting the good people in the University Hospital and elsewhere, but no Huawei, no 5G. It seems that Trump will push for closer alignment with U.S. policies on issues on which London has been broadly in disagreement with Washington and in-line with its EU partners in recent years: the Middle East, arms control, multilateralism, climate change and trade.

More positive news is that XO (the Brexit Operations Committee) has, apparently, ordered a bonfire of Non-Disclosure Agreements. We at ABHI Towers have been grumbling about this for a while. Signing NDAs when working with Government on Brexit planning has stopped us communicating with you on certain issue in as timely a manner as we might have liked. And if I am being really honest, it is quite easy to lose track on what I am and am not allowed to say. I am pretty sure I have not, in fact, breached the Official Secrets Act, but this move makes sure. The Knighthood may be back on the cards.

Our civil servants continue to work hard. We have seen a fair bit of them recently and they look tired, a little brow beaten, but they continue to work hard on our behalf. I try to reassure them by saying that all of this will make their memoirs highly readable once they are retired Permanent Secretaries. Of particular interest, HMRC announced that VAT-registered companies will be automatically enrolled for Economic Operator Registration and Identification (EORI) numbers in the next two weeks. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has also announced an additional £9m for local EU Exit preparation in targeted areas in England. You can view the full announcement here. There are now also some very informative slides available on import and export arrangements on Day One, post a no deal exit, along with those presented at this week’s Webinar on customs processes for freight at the border.

Amongst all of this there is hope. A young man has emerged who has the determination, dedication, skill and popular appeal to unite our country and improve its fortunes for the foreseeable future. His name is Jofra Archer. Enjoy the Bank Holiday Weekend. Grim reality beckons.