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Politics

Brexit: not the least surprised

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IF it was a tiger that went in the tank, as enthusiastically advocated by Prime Minister Johnson, it was a paper tiger. And all that does is clog up the filters and prevent the engine running. Furthermore, cleaning out the debris is a difficult and expensive job.

But that’s always the same with Johnson. He bounces onto the stage, utters some singularly inappropriate phrases, prattles incoherently for a while and then buggers off to let everyone else – anyone else – sort out the details that he can’t be bothered with (which is all of them).

And so it has come to pass that those “future relationship” talks, even with the “tiger in their tank”, have got absolutely nowhere and have broken up early over “serious” disagreements, with Michel Barnier complaining of “lack of respect and engagement by the UK”.

“Our goal was to get negotiations successfully and quickly on a trajectory to reach an agreement”, Barnier said in a statement. “However, after four days of discussions, serious divergences remain”.

That, of course, comes as absolutely no surprise. If there is any surprise to be had, it’s that the talks lasted as long as four days. There have never been any indications that Johnson has been serious about these talks, so the likelihood was always that they were going to break up in disarray.

NO NEW PROPOSALS FROM UK
Barnier says that Brussels had “listened carefully” to Johnson when he did his “thing” about tigers, and made vacuous noises about wanting a “political agreement” over the summer. And now that the talks have broken down, the recriminations flow, to the point where not much sense can be made of them.

We learn from Barnier, for instance, that the EU has recognised British “red lines”. These include the role of the ECJ, the refusal to be bound by EU law, and a fisheries agreement that recognises the UK’s sovereignty. It has thus hinted at several concessions, across the board.
This is matched by a complaint that the EU’s willingness to be flexible on its initial demands in light of the British positions had not been met with similar understanding from Downing Street over Brussels’ red lines. Downing Street needed to “reciprocate with new proposals”, the EU says.

David Frost, on the other hand, seems to be in the market for extruded verbal material, saying virtually nothing at some length. His big thing is that the British side still wants “an early understanding of the principles underlying an agreement”, which he hopes can be secured by the end of July.

SHIFTING THE BLAME
Oddly enough, the normally astute Denis Staunton for the Irish Times seems to think that the abrupt end to these talks was “not only surprising but perplexing”.

Perplexing it may be – nothing to do with Johnson is ever straightforward – but surprising it never was. The writing has been on the wall so long it is starting to fade.

Staunton, however, takes some comfort from “the language on both sides”. He says it was “restrained” and Frost’s had none of the belligerence that often characterises his rhetoric towards Brussels.

The fact that Barnier chose not to give a press conference, he says, was seen by some as another happy augury but Staunton says it wasn’t. Simply, he was deferring to Angela Merkel and Ursula von der Leyen, who gave a joint press conference later.

However, Barnier is also said to have accused British trade negotiators of “a lack of respect” and when von der Leyen and the German Chancellor got going, Merkel warned the EU Member States that they needed to be prepared for a no-deal TransEnd.

Why the tone of the two parties should thus give rise to such optimism isn’t immediately apparent. At this stage, with little to be gained either way – with only a very limited trade deal on the stocks, one of the greater concerns must be to establish a firm base for blame avoidance.

Barnier, in particular, will want to tell his domestic audience that the EU has gone the extra mile, not least because it then clears the way for the EU to do what it always does – screw the Brits.

A WEAK, UNLOVELY THING
Team Johnson, from the look of it, is away with the fairies anyway. And with Frost apparently trotting off to a new job at the end of the month (or not), he has good reasons for not starting a spat that he can’t finish.

But what makes this more than a little bit redundant – and so utterly tedious – is that we’re almost down to the level of two bald men fighting over a comb. Any deal done – if there is one done – must be measured not by what it includes but what is left out. So very little can be agreed in the time that anything delivered will be a weak, unlovely thing.

But the real giveaway is that the UK has yet to set out plans for how it wants an agreement to work, on areas as diverse its own state aid regime, to a fully functioning fishing policy.

Throughout the entire Brexit period the UK stance has been to let the EU make the running, and then knock down what it offers. There is only so much of that one can take before even the most patient of negotiators begins to feel they are being taken for mugs.

JOHNSON GOING THROUGH THE MOTIONS
Yet, on fishing, in particular, Barnier is saying that there needs to be a “sustainable and long-term solution” on fisheries, taking into account the needs of European fishermen for certainty over their livelihoods. An effective all-encompassing dispute settlement mechanism is also necessary, to ensure both sides stick to their obligations.

Here, the issue is – as it is elsewhere – that the British government doesn’t have the first idea of how to manage a modern fishery. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) has given way to Defra, which doesn’t even have “fisheries” in its title. Any expertise there was in the department has long gone.

Something about which we haven’t been hearing much of late is also of importance – governance. A little while back, this was of some importance, with the EU wanting a single, over-arching agreement, with standard rules and institutions, and a common dispute procedure.
Now we don’t seem to hear so much of this, but that doesn’t mean it is no longer important. Most likely, Barnier has given up on trying to get any sense out of Team Johnson and is just going through the motions.

THE EU CAN WAIT
The thing for sure here is that he doesn’t need to throw his toys out of the pram. All he has to do is wait until after December 31, and watch the Brits having hissy-fits when they discover what being outside the internal market really means.

In time – and perhaps when there is a different administration – Barnier (or his successor) can come back and we can all start talking again. Then perhaps the UK will have people who are prepared to behave like adults and look anew at what sort of relationship we need with our closest neighbours.

Until then, we are going to see a lot of this sort of ritual dance. It may die down during the holiday period and pick up the tempo as the autumn turns to winter. And there may be a last flurry of activity in the dying days of December, although that will be for show. Any agreement has to be ratified, so a last-minute deal is not on the cards.

Meanwhile, there will be more talks next week. These will be in London, another session of face-to-face meetings. I don’t expect we’ll get much more out of them than we did this week. If we do, then that really will be a surprise.

This article is reproduced by kind permission of Dr Richard North from his blog http://eureferendum.com/.

Dr Richard North is a veteran supported of Britain’s exit from the EU and co-author, with Christopher Booker, of ‘The Great Deception: The Definitive History of the EU’ and before that co-author of two other books on EU-related matters.

He was group research director of the EDD group in the European Parliament and has written numerous pamphlets and articles on EU matters.

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North Wales Commissioner to stand down

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PLAID CYMRU Leader Adam Price has paid tribute to North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner Arfon Jones who has announced he is standing down at the next election.Mr Jones of Plaid Cymru is the region’s second-ever police and crime commissioner and has been PCC since 2016, and the next election had originally been due to take place last May but the vote was put back a year because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Arfon Jones said: “The main reason I have decided not to seek re-election is that I will have been working for more than 46 years by the time of the next election.“As a result of the pandemic, the term of office was extended for a year. I started thinking about this last May but I didn’t talk to anybody else about it until three months ago.

“I have achieved a lot in the past five years and it is going to be more difficult to make a difference next time because of the pandemic, Brexit and the fact that the term of office has been curtailed to three years.”

Plaid Cymru Leader Adam Price MS said: “We are indebted to Arfon Jones for his tremendous contribution as the Police and Crime Commissioner for north Wales.“From launching Checkpoint Cymru – a project to address the underlying causes of offending; commissioning over £2 million worth of services to support victims of crime; leading the charge in tackling domestic violence and to more recently keeping our communities safe during the Coronavirus pandemic, Arfon’s considerable achievements in office are a testament to his commitment to the constituents he serves.

“On behalf of Plaid Cymru, I would like to thank Arfon Jones for his contribution to Welsh public life and send him our warmest wishes for the future.Plaid Cymru Chair Alun Ffred Jones added: “From safeguarding the most vulnerable in our society, protecting our communities and preventing offending and reoffending, Arfon Jones’s tireless work has helped make North Wales a safer place.


“A true public servant, he will be remembered for representing the people of north Wales with determination and for fighting to ensure that the voices of victims of crime are heard within the justice system.


“On behalf of Plaid Cymru, I wish him all the best for the future.”Mr Jones succeeded Winston Roddick in the Police and Crime Commissioner role and had a 12,000 majority over Labour’s David Taylor in the last Police and Crime Commissioner elections in 2016.The elections for the role of Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales are scheduled for Thursday, May 6, the same day as voters head to the polls in elections to the Welsh Parliament.

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Taskforce returns empty homes to use

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MORE than 500 applications have been received to bring empty homes back in to use through Welsh Government’s £10 million Valleys Taskforce Empty Homes Grant Scheme, Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport Lee Waters has announced.

Phase One of the initiative was launched a year ago by the Deputy Minister, and Chair of the Valleys Taskforce, after a successful roll-out across Rhondda Cynon Taf.The scheme is open to homeowners across the extended Valleys Taskforce, which runs from Carmarthenshire in West Wales to Torfaen in East Wales. Its boundaries were also extended last year to include the Gwendraeth and Amman Valleys.

Phase Two of the scheme, launched in July 2020, will ensure even greater numbers of local businesses are used to bring empty homes back to life and incentivise applicants to use more energy-efficient measures within their renovations. Not only will this help to reduce carbon emissions it will also result in lower energy bills for future residents.

While the scheme will see some applicants going on to live in their refurbished properties, other properties will be brought in to use for social housing by Registered Social Landlords, helping to increase the supply of affordable housing.Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport Lee Waters said: “A year ago, I announced that following the success of a Rhondda Cynon Taf scheme, we were opening a £10 million Welsh Government Empty Homes Grant scheme across the whole of the Valleys Taskforce areas.“It is heartening to see that scheme progressing well, with over 500 applications already received and I hope many more to come. 

Of course, this year has been challenging for everyone but despite the pandemic causing a delay on the scheme for many months, and the floods that impacted many Valleys areas, we have seen great progress.

Local authorities have worked hard to roll out this scheme in their areas and provide the necessary match funding to make this success and I would like to put on record my thanks for their hard work.“With strengthened criteria, which we developed collaboratively with local authorities and other stakeholders, this scheme has not only brought empty properties back in to use but has also supported the foundations of our local economies by providing work for small local businesses in the construction sector.

The retrofitting element also means it is supporting our decarbonisation agenda while also reducing energy bills for the future.“I look forward to seeing the full results of this Valleys Taskforce scheme  and will work closely with the Minister for Housing and Local Government to use our learning to influence and develop a future empty homes schemes for the whole of Wales.”Mike Roberts, from Carmarthenshire, applied to Phase One of the scheme. He said: “My house had been empty for more than two years and desperately needed to be restored to a decent standard.“The Empty Homes Grant Scheme was a great help and allowed me to carry out essential works all at once.


“There was a formal process and a range of forms to complete but my grant was approved and the work has been done. I am delighted.”To be eligible for the Valleys Taskforce Empty Homes Scheme, homes need to have been empty for at least 6 months. Applicants to the scheme are also restricted to one grant per person and in cases where repair work exceeds £20,000, will have the option to apply for the Welsh Government’s Houses into Homes scheme.

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Call to replace the Lords

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OVERHAULING Parliament’s London-dominated second chamber would help empower the UK’s nations and regions, writes Willie Sullivan a senior director at the Electoral Reform Society.

It’s been a year since Boris Johnson’s victory in the 2019 general election, an election won with a commitment to ‘level up’ those communities left behind.

Since then, our politics has been shaken by a pandemic that has put pressure on the already strained constitutional settlement that holds the nations and regions of the UK together.

We’ve seen attention turned to local and regional government as well as the devolved administrations. We’ve seen clearly how the over-centralising nature of Westminster can hamper and undermine public trust. The video of Andy Burnham first hearing news of Greater Manchester’s Covid funding settlement at a live press conference will go down as a low point in Britain’s patchwork devolution framework.

This is all set to the backdrop of declining faith in our politics. At the same time as the PM was returning to Number 10 last winter, polling for the Electoral Reform Society showed that just 16% of the public believe politics is working well in the UK – and only 2% feel they have a significant influence over decision-making.

For a government publicly committed to a levelling up agenda, this democratic malaise must serve as a warning: it will take more than economic investment or shiny new infrastructure to remedy the feeling of powerlessness that many feel outside of Westminster.

Tackling that will require some long-overdue reform. The calls for a clear framework for devolution in the UK have become impossible to ignore in recent months. Even areas of England with mayors felt sidelined this year, but the picture was even worse elsewhere – with zero guarantees that local people would be consulted on changes that would affect their lives immeasurably.

There’s a good way to start empowering the UK’s nations and regions: overhauling Parliament’s unelected second chamber.

Abolishing the outdated and unaccountable House of Lords offers a chance to rebalance politics away from Westminster – and create a representative Senate of the Nations and Regions.

Recent Electoral Reform Society analysis found that nearly a quarter of peers are based in London, compared to just 13% of the UK public. Over half – 56% of peers – live in the capital, or the east and south-east of England, while peers in the east and west Midlands make up just 6% between them – leaving many areas in which the Conservatives won seats in the so-called ‘red wall’ woefully underrepresented.

It should be said, this is only peers we know about: more than 300 refuse to state even the country they live in (some live overseas), and hundreds more do not even provide a direct email address for people to get in touch and stand up for their areas.

All this undermines the government’s stated intention to ‘level up’ the regions, when we have a chamber that is skewed towards one patch of England.

Reforming this London-dominated second chamber is a rare issue that is highly popular across all parties. 71% of the UK public back an overhaul of the House of Lords, research showed this year. The issue cuts across Britain’s divides, with an overhaul backed by a majority of those who voted Conservative or Labour in the 2019 general election, and those who voted Leave or Remain in the EU referendum.

As well as levelling up representation – with peers elected using a fair, proportional voting system – a genuinely accountable second chamber could establish a guaranteed voice for the regions of the UK, to speak as one, to scrutinise legislation and our constitutional settlement with clear communities in mind. The UK remains one of the most centralised countries in Europe – and the archaic, power-hoarding set-up in Westminster has a big role to play in why this is.

The pandemic has shown just how important it is for those outside the capital to be truly heard. There are many reasons why voters had more confidence in their governments’ Covid responses more in Wales and Scotland, but having a stake – being genuinely ‘in it together’ makes a big difference.

This is a challenge to all parties, from Boris Johnson as he tries to plot a path for recovery for the UK, to Keir Starmer as he begins to outline his own view of devolution.

One thing’s clear: the London-dominated House of Lords is undermining the voice of local communities. A Senate of the Nations and Regions could be the gamechanger we need.

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