Brexit and the oral culture of journalism

For anyone following the trainwreck of Brexit, Richard North’s is an indispensable source. North was (and, at least in principle, still is) a Leave supporter, proposing a model called Flexcit (roughly, the Norway/EFTA/EEA option), but has long since broken with May, Johnson and the rest of the Brexiteers.

North is scathing about the low level of analysis of just about everyone involved in the debate, the only consistent exceptions being Pete North (not sure if or how they are related) and his former employer Christopher Booker who, despite being on the denialist fringe of the climate debate, seems to make sense on Brexit.

I’ll ask a question about Brexit over the fold, but I mainly wanted to cite this important observation. Attacking a recent report, he writes that the author

proudly announces that his piece “is based on conversations” with certain prestigious persons, rather than to reference to primary sources. This so typifies the “oral culture” approach of what passes for journalism, with not even a passing reference to the Commission’s Notices to Stakeholders.

It is probably this superficial, prestige-driven approach which defines the popular Efta/EEA narrative. The average journalist would have a nose-bleed if they ever had to look at a copy of the EEA Agreement. In-depth “research” means looking up back copies of the Financial Times. As for the politicians, they seem to make it up as they go along.

The point about the oral culture is spot-on, I think. I remember observing long ago that journalists, unlike bloggers, assume that they can ring anyone up about anything and expect an answer. That has a huge influence on the way the media work.

Now a question. A “No Deal” outcome looks increasingly likely, and at least some Brexiteers welcome the idea. But a literal “No Deal” would mean that planes would stop flying, trade between Britain and the EU would slow to a crawl, food shortages and so on. So, just about everyone assumes that “No Deal” actually means an emergency deal of some kind. Until today, though, I hadn’t seen any discussion of what such an emergency deal might be like.

Today, the Guardian reports the prospect, quickly denounced and denied, of a “blind Brexit” described as “a face-saving deal in which many of the major issues were deferred for negotiation during the transition after the UK has legally left the bloc”.

It seems implausible to me that, at a time of maximum leverage, the EU would be primarily concerned with saving face for Theresa May. But I’d be interested to know what others think about it, and if anyone else is discussing the shape of a “No Deal” deal.

20 thoughts on “Brexit and the oral culture of journalism

  1. Brussels don’t care about saving May’s face. They do care about their own, and a hard Brexit (20-mile truck queues at Dover and Calais, food shortages in the UK, financial panic) would be bad for them. An emergency clock stop is quite likely and in line with EU traditions. An extended transition, in which the UK appplies all EU regulations but loses its vote, would be new, but it bears the alternative.

  2. While Brussels doesn’t care about saving May’s face, they do want to avoid a no deal exit (which would be bad for the EU, though nowhere near as bad as it would be for the UK) and they want to avoid a hard border in Ireland. Offering the blind Brexit makes sense, given that they know that if May goes, she is likely to be replaced by Johnson or someone equally dim and reckless. The extended transition James talks of won’t happen, at least for any long value of “extended”, because too many Tories (and a few Labour politicians) are viscerally anti EU and seem to believe that it is 1940 and Britain must stand alone against Germany.

  3. I can’t understand why May took on the job of being PM. According to the Guardian uk there are rumours circulating about a second referendum or a new election. There are also discussions about ‘who governs’. That is, the Brexit referendum seems to be in conflict with the notion of Her Majesty’s representative government. In short, two apparently conflicting notions of democracy.

    IMHO, the EU hasn’t got a lot of options without giving up its core principles of freedom of movement of goods, services and people within the EU area. Given the unanimous affirmation by all EU members, excluding the UK, to uphold these core principles before negotiations started and no indication of any weakening since then, it seems to me the UK government is currently wasting its time trying to ‘divide and rule’ by sending high level government representatives to meet with government officials or heads (eg May and Merkel and May and Macron) of individual countries of the EU. Alternatively put, the strategic talk from 2016/17 of Brexit breaking up the EU is cheap talk IMHO.

    The EU has made it clear any extended negotiation period would be considered only if a new election would result in substantially different proposals.

    The Irish boarder issue is serious for both, the UK and the EU. It is serious for the UK because a ‘hard boarder’ could reignite the troubles. It is serious for the EU because without a boarder, Northern Ireland would constitute a leakage of the external trade barriers of the EU.

    Arriving at an agreement on the status of UK citizens in the EU and vice versa is plausible IMHO.

    The only item where I can see the EU can give a bit without violating its set of treaties is the amount of money the UK has to pay. In this case the new UK negotiator doesn’t create a trump card by trying to link this payment to any other issue. They were linked in round one and it seems to me this item is the EU’s negotiation tool.

    I don’t subscribe to the belief of a ‘financial panic’ in the EU. On the contrary, the first moves of implementing the demand for EURO denominated transactions being cleared within the post-Brexit EU rather than in London have already occurred.There is a longstanding disagreement between the UK and ‘Brussels’ regarding the regulation of financial markets.

    The UK, like other EU member countries, will continue to blame Brussels for domestic purposes. This is about the only firm prediction I am prepared to make.

    In the meantime, Continental papers report a call for the EU to become stronger – a world power – in response to the uncertainties created by the current US administration, Brexit and China’s international investments. Some say Juncker has driven many to despair, but he is the right guy to talk to Trump.

  4. don’t be fooled, North is a loony just like the rest of the Brexiteers, but I suppose in the land of the swivel eyed loon the one eyed loon is king

    and he rehashes nonsense from WUWT and Breitbart (as he did in a recent blog post) as the rest of these loonies, a cherry picking hypocrite

    North is as guilty as the rest of the ultras, which he himself as posted he has “common cause” with – he just realised some time ago that he had been writing bollox about the SM for years

    something most remainers already understood – which is weirdly why they voted remain – go figure

    now he simply tries to shoehorn this fact into his narrow case for leave – oh and only he is right – about everything and I mean everything

    and to be clear, the Norway route for North is only “phase one” the endgame for North is fully out as with the ultras, but in the crazed North fantasy the UK will take its rightful place on the Global Rule setting bodies such as the UNECE etc etc

    scratch the surface it is the same Ultra nonsense built on a bed of English exceptionalism

    it has all the hall marks of a cult to me – but agree, essential reading for those interested in cognitive dissonance

  5. “We are reflexive agents bound by unacknowledged conditions and unintended consequences.” [1]

    David Held is only partly right. We are indeed bound by unacknowledged conditions and unintended consequences. However, we are not pure reflexive (reflecting, thoughtful, calculating) agents. We are also instinctive and impulsive agents. The “unacknowledged conditions” involve those of our internal nature as well as those of external nature. The “unintended consequences” are nature’s responses; “nature’s moves” in a “move tree” (of branching future possibilities) of unimaginable complexity.

    Empires and Federations are built on the bones of others and of our own. The EU is an attempt to build an empire or federation without paying the “bone price”. I cannot think of an Empire or Federation which was built without genocide. Certainly the Roman Empire, the British Empire, the Russian Empire, the Qin dynasty, modern China and modern USA were all built on aggression, genocides and civil wars. Any status quo ante bellum is simply the status quo of the war before that war.

    Nonetheless, the attempt of the nations of the EU to create an (eventual?) Federation without a war could be a sign of progress… if successful. The problem is that it is stuck half-way or not even that far. A true Federation is larger than an OCA (optimal currency area). The nation states need to become Federated States. A true Federal Government is required with Federal taxes and commitments of direct fiscal transfers to poor states as Australia does for Tasmania and the US does or should do for Mississippi and Puerto Rico, as examples. One can never tell with the US, without checking the figures, as it is a very dysfunctional federation these days.

    The EU area (Western Europe) faces the problem of being an exhausted region in resource terms. This is especially the case in terms of energy sources and energy imports. Without a very rapid transition to renewable energy its position is weak. To quote Eurostat;

    “The dependency rate shows the extent to which an economy relies upon imports in order to meet its energy needs. It is measured by the share of net imports (imports – exports) in gross inland energy consumption (meaning the sum of energy produced and net imports). In the EU in 2016, the dependency rate was equal to 54 %, which means that more than half of the EU’s energy needs were met by net imports. This rate ranges from over 90 % in Malta, Luxembourg and Cyprus to below 20 % in Estonia and Denmark. The dependency rate on energy imports has increased since 2000, when it was just 47 %.”

    The largest share by far of the EU’s energy imports comes from Russia. This represents a geostrategic and economic vulnerability. There is certainly a co-dependence with Russia depending considerably on imports from the EU. However, Russia has a future option. With China growing into the largest economy in the world (largest even now on the PPP measure) and China developing the OBOR (One Belt One road), Russia can “pivot” east. Russia can send increasing volumes of energy products to China and China can supply Russia with light and heavy manufactures.

    The EU is fighting long term problems on several fronts. Its chances of disintegrating are probably greater than its chances of moving toward further integration.

    1. “The Tragedy of Human Agency: the Uncertainty of Evolution’. – David Held

  6. No doubt about, people did not wake up to the true nature, structure and purpose of the EU after Grexit.

    Cameron, who argued in such harsh terms for the Greek prosecution by the EU, then committed the ultimate folly by dancing about the precipice whilst intoxicated by his self-perceived cleverness, tossing Britain, a country attached to a financial hub parasiting off it, the City, into the grim maw.

    Look, all the world’s a shopfront and those taught to think otherwise learn whats behind the front as Britain and the US did after the Meltdown.

    This Stepforded, blindfolded little country may well be next cab off the rank as it sits stupefied in its dumbed-down post-lobotomic phase.

  7. The “flexcit” paper by Richard North is dated 17 May 2018! There is no point in reading further because it is out of date at the time it was written. It is out of date by about 2 years or any earlier period before the referendum, which would be long enough to be considered reasonable for people who were asked to vote to contemplate the plausibility of its content. (I’ll put Richard North under ‘useless work generation agent’ in my mental filing cabinet).

  8. Ikonoclast, two points only in reply.

    Less than 30 years ago there was an “iron curtain” going through the approximate geographic center of what is now the EU. The evolution to democracy, as known in the former Western Europe, seems to be difficult for some former East Block countries, eg Poland and Hungary. The socio-economic integration of East and West Germany took about 20 years with still marked differences remaining, even though there were no language barriers and massive financial transfers from West to East. Comparing the time profile of achieving the objectives of the Iraq war or Afghanistan or both with the time profile of achieving the EU’s objective, I would suggest the latter is doing quite well and more ‘efficiently’, both in terms of human lives not ended through war and in terms of financial resources.

    Regarding energy dependency, the EU does trade with countries outside its geographic borders and Russia is not the only supplier of oil and gas. There is also North Africa and the Middle East to name the obvious places.

  9. There seems to be little to no support for a second referendum in parliament, and only parliament can issue instructions for a refendum.

    A lot of this discussion seems to exist only in the press, the public don’t seem to give a toss – yet.

  10. Ernestine Gross, I take your points and I may be proved wrong. The EU is trying to make a transition which would be somewhat new in human history if it can be made. I mean a transition to a Federation of a number of powerful and previous warring powers plus a collection of lesser and minor powers. This has never been done before without war and genocide (so far as I can tell in my reading of history). This is not to say they cannot do it. Perhaps they can. One should hope they can, albeit as a more socialist and a less neoliberal project. Perhaps an ordoliberal project will do well enough too.

    The difficulty (partly) will lie in putting together further the EU system as a true Federation (an increase in coordination and complexity), at the same time as resource limits become more operational as contemporary limits. Europe’s energy transition is a key. We should not be burning all of the world’s coal, oil and gas reserves. It is known that burning all the reserves will tip us way over the climate change limits. So Europe, like the rest of the world, has to forego fossil fuels well before they run out.

  11. @ Ernestine Gross

    The 2018 date is a misnomer- Flexit has evolved from a submission to an IEA (Institute of Economic Affairs) competition ion for a UK exit plan from the EU – first was run in 2013/2014

    Google variations on “iea north brexit competition”

  12. @ Anonymous

    I don’t know about “Flexit”.

    The title of the paper by Richard North is Flexcit and the date of the paper is 17 May 2018.

    No, I am not going to google anything on your advice.

  13. Dunno why Brussels would want to avoid a hard Brexit. They are primarily concerned with holding the EU together, and 20 mile long queues at Dover would work fine pour encourager les autres. It would stop the LePens in various countries cold.

    If I was them I’d be aiming for maximum short-term pain from Brexit, borne mainly by the Brits but with inevitable collateral damage, followed by an emergency deal that aims to minimise everyone’s long-term pain. They hold all the cards here and might play some of them.

  14. Yes, may, “the ‘farage bloke”, the said Nigel, is a member of the EU Parliament since 1999, representing the UKIP party for South East England.

  15. North has some striking numbers on Dover. On an average working day, 15,000 trucks crosss the Channel via Dover port or the Chunnel. Say 7,500 in each direction. The half-developed plan to turn 13 miles of the M20 motorway into a truck park would create 2,000 parking spaces. (No contracts have yet been signed to prepare this.) A hard Brexit would instantly turn the UK into a third country like the USA. Under both EU law and WTO rules, trucks from the U.K. would have to be inspected accordingly, as against the current régime of spot checks and tipoffs. “Train wreck” greatly understates the chaos.

  16. James

    No. Most goods move in containers, which are hard to inspect (and often contain goods from multiple parties). Customs cannot stroll past and look at goods. So spot checks and intelligence-driven searches are the normal procedure. Both confined to a small percentage of cargo (Australian customs looks at 5 per cent of shipments and that’s high by developed country standards). Neither EU law or WTO rules demand more (or else the Ports of Rotterdam, Hamburg etc would grind to a halt).

    You can have a large x-ray system. I oversaw the building of three in three years – that was a world record. The usual form is more like one in five years. But it still scans only a small percentage of cargo.

    It’s not customs that is the obstacle (although whenever any goods are held up, the customer is told it’s customs’ fault). It’s matching up the goods with the electronic information that flows through several separate channels, so that you can direct movement to the right place. This process is quite different for international sea trade than for domestic, since different channels operate (you can give a domestic driver a delivery address and off he goes; an international movement has to get clearance, financial approval, often final destination from the forwarder rather than the carrier, often regulatory certificates attach and so on.

    All those lorries will be parked there because the drivers will not know where to go, or don’t have the clearances to deliver the goods, or the charges have not been paid.

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