How is UK to leave EU?

My former colleague Gerry Lynch recently posted this on Facebook:

The will of the people must be respected. Which will is that? The will that the UK can get its cake and eat it with the EU more than it already had, with all the benefits and none of the costs of membership? Or the will said the UK is a great country and can thrive entirely outside European structures and has no need of the single market? Or the will that said that immigration was too high and the undoubted costs of leaving the EU were worth getting the level of immigration under control? Or the will that said immigration was great and the UK should lead the world as a tariff free, regulation free, country with the minimum possible border controls? Or the will that just wanted to stick the finger to Cameron and Osborne (both of whom have been forgotten in an amazingly short space to time)?

Too right. 

So here is a straightforward challenge to those who want the UK to leave the EU – tell us how. And here is a straightforward platform – do it right here, on this blog!

Any comment on this blog post either directly here or on Facebook will be taken as an offer of a guest blog post, next Tuesday (and Tuesdays thereafter if there are more than one). Let’s hear it!

Meanwhile, here is how I would do it. Well, of course, I wouldn’t leave at all. But here is how I would attempt to respect the will of the people without collapsing the economy or causing constitutional chaos.

I would put an offer to the heads of government across the rest of the EU stating as follows:

  • from 1 July 2017, for six years, the UK will place a cap on the number of people allowed entry to the country from the Schengen Zone for the purposes of work, announcing that cap six months in advance each year;
  • also from that date, the UK will take over the full operation of its international aid budget (knocking around £20-£30 million off its contribution to the EU budget);
  • during that seven-year period, the UK will remain a member of the EU on the terms negotiated by David Cameron, but will agree to leave the room for discussions pertinent to the Single Currency or the Schengen Zone;
  • after four years (from June 2021), the UK will negotiate with the European Council the terms under which free movement within the Single Market will work into and out of the Schengen Zone, and on the basis of that negotiation the UK will then make a decision specifically on whether or not to remain within or leave the Single Market (determining its future relationship with the EU on the basis of that decision).

What is in this for the various sides?

For everyone (the European Council, the UK Government, Leave supporters and Remain supporters), the headache of how precisely the UK goes about leaving the EU is postponed for a reasonable duration while it is worked out.

For many Leave voters, the UK reclaims “control of its borders” – forever, if it so chooses (but on the understanding that maintaining such “control” into the next decade means restructuring the economy to leave the Single Market). This should appeal at least to some of those who voted on “sovereignty”, and to almost all those who voted on “immigration”. Those who don’t much like “international aid” will also see this restored to the UK and thus some money brought back to the UK (even if this is actually somewhat irrational).

For Remain voters, the debate is shifted to where it should be – the Single Market. Ultimately the future decision is not EU or no EU, but Single Market or no Single Market. This is a recognition of the reality that the UK does not get to set the terms alone of remaining within the Single Market.

For the European Council, there is at least a window of opportunity to re-define the EU somewhat, making the “core EU” (Single Currency and Schengen Zone) distinct from the “associate EU” (the Single Market without the Single Currency and Schengen Zone). Not only might it be possible to avoid any member state technically leaving under this new dispensation (the obvious risk being if the UK goes, so might the likes of Sweden), but it may even be possible to tempt countries such as Norway and Iceland in, since the “associate” membership option is not far from EEA, but with a common and clear framework.

For the UK Government, there is the chance to reflect that concerns raised in the referendum about immigration have been fully taken into account; but also that concerns raised concerning economic reconfiguration and the difficulties with the legal changes required to leave the EU have also been given time for resolution.

For Scotland and Northern Ireland, there is at least time here to determine exactly what they would do, should the UK opt to leave the Single Market; and, presumably, to make the case not to. For the Republic of Ireland, there is also a window of opportunity to consider exactly what its interests are with regard to free trade and movement with the UK, versus with the rest of the EU.

The UK Government’s external core argument would be that it is a little rich for other EU member states to lecture on how important absolute free movement is, when in fact only the UK (alongside Ireland and Sweden) implemented it upon the EU’s expansion in 2004. It would be precisely because the UK took in so many EU citizens from that date that it would be making the case for not having to do so now; as well as being on a separate land mass and outside the Schengen Zone. Its internal core argument would be that leaving the EU takes time and needs to be subject to further detailed consideration, but that the direction of travel is now established without a reasonable counter offer towards a looser EU.

Surely, of course, the European Council would reject such an offer? Well, maybe. But maybe not. You don’t know until you try. Actually my bet is the European Council would accept the offer – after all, there is no institution in the world more expert at can-kicking-down-the-road.

Impossible? Impractical? Not actually respecting the will of the people? Well then, your turn… right here, next Tuesday…

GB not yet an “Olympic Superpower”

There is no doubt Team GB’s performance at this month’s Olympic Games was outstanding. To edge ahead of the London medals total was a superb achievement, and all those who made it happen should be rightly reflecting in the afterglow.

However, it should not be overstated. The most obvious recent comparison, Australia around 2000, gives food for thought.

When I was growing up, Team GB (although it was not then so branded) typically scored five gold medals in the twenties total medals in a typical Olympic Games (five and 24 in Seoul 1988 was actually above par at the time). That was also the total typically scored by countries such as France and Italy (of equivalent population and wealth), and somewhat behind West Germany (likewise). It was also typically marginally ahead of Australia, a country with considerably fewer people but considerably greater sporting interest.

Suddenly, having been awarded the 2000 Games, Australia burst out of the blocks – at the previous games, in Atlanta in 1996, it scored nine golds and 41 medals, a marked improvement on past performance. When the time came to host the games, this rose to 16 golds and 58, and Australia was talked of as an “Olympic superpower”. Yet, astonishingly, at the subsequent games in Athens in 2004, Australia did more or less as well – in fact improving to a whopping 17 golds, while declining only slightly to 51 overall medals, still markedly better than any previous remotely comparable performance away from home.

At the time, it was thought that hosting the games had seen Australia rise not just temporarily to Olympic superpower status as hosts, but in fact permanently. It was thought the Sydney afterglow would last forever. In Beijing in 2008 there was a slight slip to 46 medals (agonisingly one behind the “Poms”), but this was still better than any pre-2000 performance. Superpower status seemed confirmed.

Yet, by 2016, Australia had slumped to just 29 medals. This is still historically respectable and is not a bad total for a country with less than half the population of England alone. However, it is just half the Sydney total and nothing like the heights reached even away from home in 1996-2008.

Team GB did something similar. In 2000 and 2004 the team improved slightly, but still only to an average ten golds and 29 medals (in line with the likes of France and Italy, as in the past). However, having been awarded the games, the team then improved dramatically even at the previous games, with an at-the-time-astonishing 19 golds and 47 medals in Beijing in 2008 for fourth place in the medals table. As hosts, performance then took another leap up to 29 golds and 65 medals and third place, and this was then retained (as was more or less the case with Australia in 2004) to secure 27 golds and 67 medals at the subsequent Olympics in 2016, good enough for second.

If Team GB were to track Australia – and that is a reasonable proposition – performance in Tokyo in 2020 would remain marginally better than it was in Beijing in 2008, but inferior either to London 2012 or Rio 2016. This would still, by historical comparison, be a good result and would probably be reported as such. However, the subsequent 2024 Olympics would be expected to see a sudden dip, still to slightly better than the historical average but markedly worse than anything since 2004, before settling back at a more typical performance from then on (which, given the wider range of sports now at the games, would probably mean around 10 golds and 30-35 medals, similar to Italy and marginally better than Australia as in the past, from 2028).

In other words, it is by no means yet established that Team GB is a true “Olympic Superpower” as some have reported. Vastly improved coaching and facilities must have had an effect, of course, but the test is whether they really put the British up with the Russians and Chinese a decade from now. There is much still to do if that is to be achieved!

Which language should I learn?

Linked to recent posts on here, and also an article in The Economist two weeks ago, is the question of which language a willing learner should choose.

Experts in The Economist made the case for French (on the grounds it is still widely spoken as an administrative language in various parts of the world), Spanish (on the grounds of rising numbers of native speakers and access from it to Italian and Portuguese), Brazilian Portuguese (this one lost me a bit so we will leave it there!), Mandarin (on the grounds of the rise of China) and Latin (as a conduit to lots of other languages).

Of these, I find only the case for Spanish convincing. On top of that, one obvious candidate was missed – German.

The article was extremely good but one really obvious issue – touched in last week on this blog – was missed altogether. You have to assess how motivated you will be to learn the language.

Are you really going to learn Mandarin? I mean, really? This cannot reasonably be done taking half an hour in the evening to do an Internet course from a flat in Bristol. It will require spending a considerable length of time in (a relevant region of) China – like, living and working there – and even at that being committed to immerse yourself rather than just seek out Westerners while teaching English to get by. Even in hugely favourable circumstances with real dedication, you will still probably come away with at best conversational proficiency (and very limited literacy), which you will then have to dedicate yourself to maintaining (by regular trips back to China, in all likelihood). How likely is that?

The same applies, in a way, to Latin. It appears more familiar of course, but in its case you really have no way of using the language (unless for some reason you have engaged in learning a language to reading fluency just to read ancient literature). I am not against a grounding in Latin by any means, but the best language you can learn? Dubious…

French is, of course, a fascinating language, but is at an immediate disadvantage because historically it differs markedly from other Latinate languages (with one consequence that it is difficult, objectively, to pronounce), so is limited in being a conduit towards them. Furthermore, the case for its geographical extent is limited, covering only North Africa and, at a push, Indochina. Compare that with the social and economic might of the whole Spanish-speaking world (or even the Portuguese in the longer run), and it comes out unquestionably worse. It has its uses no doubt (not least its retention as a formal administrative language by the likes of the UN and IOC), but its practical 21st century extent is restricted.

There is undoubtedly a case for Spanish. First of all, there is the motivation almost no matter where you are in the world – both Europeans and North Americans can find it instantly useful at a range of common holiday destinations for a start. Secondly, it has remained fairly close to Latin, as have Portuguese and Italian, and is thus a useful conduit to them. Thirdly, it is also relatively simple to use after just a little learning. Best of all is our exposure to it – it is quite common for Spanish-language hits to make it into the US or UK charts, and Spanish is increasingly used in US drama series (the main language of “Narcos”, a significant language in “Power”, and a peripheral but important one in many more). Nothing succeeds like exposure! Tie this to a large and growing number of native speakers with increasing economic influence, and the case for Spanish being the language to learn is close to unanswerable.

However, there remains a case for German. Approached the right way (as per the link), it is not as inaccessible as the scary word order and complex case system initially suggest. It is also, by far, the language I have found most useful – I have found it necessary to fix electronic items (shipped with menus set in German), to set up TVs (I received one with instructions only in German), help out tourists (both in Northern Ireland and elsewhere), operate on holiday (this year in Italy German was a lingua franca at our site and locations around it), and manage business (there may be something of a bias here, but I am asked for German translations or courses more often than any other, by far). This is scarcely a surprise. German is the most commonly spoken mother tongue in the world’s largest trading bloc, and the language of the world’s second biggest exporter – and is thus of vastly more significance than French and potentially ahead of Spanish (particularly from a European perspective). It is also a conduit to Dutch, and to some extent to Scandinavian, thus covering all Europe’s most prosperous economies. It is important to maintain motivation (so that visits to Germany or Austria result in you practising German on the natives and not natives practising English on you), but there are a lot of reasons for doing so.

Faced with the choice between Spanish or German, a lot of other considerations come into play. However, on the basis of geographical proximity, social use, economic value and linkage to other languages in the longer run (and thus basic motivation, the most important thing of all), the “language to learn” is definitely one or the other of those two.



Judge Trudeau on delivery

In the midst of the craziness – as Farage visits Trump while Putin licks his lips – Canadian PM Justin Trudeau seems to outsiders like a breath of fresh air. His 50% female cabinet, apologies to native groups, and attendance at LGBTQ events have been a welcome relief for social liberals; his knowledge of quantum physics, commitment to healthy living and even pro-activity on the national anthem (removing a specific male reference) have provided a real role model for those looking for a response to the global retreat to isolationist conservative nationalism.

No wonder he has, therefore, attained hero status among the social liberal “elite”, stung by political reverses almost everywhere else. It may be (and indeed I hope it is, as I would have voted and campaigned for his party without reservation) that he lives up to his billing.

It is worth noting that history does suggest otherwise, however. Remember, he hasn’t actually done anything of practical significance yet. (And even though it is not his fault, social liberals themselves should always be uneasy about someone who has attained artificial prominence because of his surname.)

Mr Trudeau’s current global popularity reminds me very much of a certain Mr Blair’s at a similar stage in his premiership. That same Mr Blair did deliver some quick wins – from the Belfast Agreement to a successful (often now forgotten given what came after) military intervention in Sierra Leone. Youthful, good-looking and charming, initially it appeared Mr Blair could do no wrong. Remember that?

I recently spoke to a close friend in western Canada to whom I had not spoken in some time, not least because child care is so hopeless that almost all her time (and money) as a working mother is taken up with that. There had also been health issues in the family for which there had been no option but a long waiting list to use an inflexible service. Traffic is also a significant problem. One example only, but immediate evidence that all is not exactly perfect. My friend backed Mr Trudeau – but is still waiting for some action to address such issues. It is inconceivable she is alone in that; and even more inconceivable that she will forgive him if she has to wait much longer.

Quick wins – like changing the words to the national anthem – are good for setting the scene (and are welcome), but actually they make no practical difference to people’s lives in the long run. Let us see some of the practical delivery before we engage in too much hero worship. Let us learn from history, in other words…

Nonsense of “all education should be free”

In response to Owen Smith’s proposal for a graduate tax to replace student fees, one correspondent got literally hundreds of likes for the apparently brilliant notion that there should be neither student fees nor a graduate tax because “all education should be free”.

Yet such simplistic nonsense is the very problem with our democracy. It is almost impossible for anyone to dispute that line and not make themselves appear abhorrent to the world. And yet it is total nonsense.

Firstly, education as a matter of fact is not free. Teachers and tutors must be paid; buildings must be constructed, maintained, rented and heated; materials must be bought; none of this is “free”. By “free”, we actually mean “paid for by the taxpayer”. So, not free, in other words.

Secondly, if I decide for no reason other than my own amusement to do an online course in gardening, should that be paid for by the taxpayer (or “free”, as some like to call it)? Of course not. What a ridiculous notion.

So let us work back from there. If I decide to do an adult learning course, should it be “free”? Or maybe a degree in my spare time, for no reason other than I qualified and felt like it? Or maybe a degree full time…?

Basic education, and within that I include nursery, should be available for “free” (i.e. on the taxpayer) for all. That gives everyone a fair chance, regardless of background (or, at least, it should), and is a broad and wise social investment for us all (even those of us without children of our own).

But optional further education? That is an investment in yourself for which you are likely to be rewarded, and not just financially. I recommend it. But it’s for you, so don’t expect me to pay for it!

And let’s think before we trot out such populist nonsense.

Could Northern Ireland remain within the EU Customs Union?

As every week goes by, the case for “Brexit” weakens despite the referendum result. Sterling has declined markedly; the cost of administering Brexit alone is ridiculous; “Leave” Ministers are at war with each other. The only thing they agree upon is that UK passports should be blue – something which could happen anyway while remaining an EU member state (the EU has no law on passport colours).

Another issue they are divided on is the EU Customs Union, and this is crucial for the island of Ireland. If the UK were to  remain within the EU Customs Union (something which is quite possible outside the EU and would be very wise, given that it maintains the UK’s current international Trade Deals and no other Trade Deals would be available at time of withdrawal from the EU), then there would be no “hard border”. The only necessity would be the occasional spot check (easily done between Northern Ireland and Great Britain); very little else would need to change and the border could remain more or less as is.

Should the UK leave the EU Customs Union, it would not be impossible for Northern Ireland to remain effectively within it. It could be agreed that customs checkpoints would be applied only to goods travelling between Great Britain and the EU and vice-versa – but any arriving in Northern Ireland or going from Northern Ireland to either would not be subject to customs. Northern Ireland may have to offer something for this special status – for example, it could offer to maintain (as it is perfectly entitled to do at devolved level) all EU trading and employment standards.

There would be certain quirks to this. For example, this somewhat nerdy post from two years ago would suddenly become relevant – it would probably be necessary to distinguish clearly Northern Irish vehicles from those elsewhere in the UK, best done by adopting the system I proposed then (with the initial letter “I” in all cases) in order to avoid confusion around personalised plates – all vehicles moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain or vice-versa would now be re-registered obligatorily, not just optionally.

These are the types of things we have to consider to maximise our opportunities over the coming years and months.

Ireland needs to think again re Olympics

“Team GB” had a staggering Rio Summer Olympics. For many, including me, it was a marked comparative improvement on the last one, given that it came away from home and was so far in excess of what past comparable hosts (cf. Australia 2004 after 2000) have managed.

It was, however, “Team GB”. Northern Ireland contributed not a single medal to the haul.

Most Northern Irish competitors were, of course, competing for “Team Ireland”. However even that entire team, with a population higher than New Zealand and comparable to Denmark, mustered just two silvers. Let us even leave aside the disgrace around its Chief, who ended up arrested.

To be clear, to reach the semi-final of the 1500m at the Olympics or reaching the latter stages of the archery is a fantastic achievement; and if you do it, it should be cause for much local and family pride. One boxer was, of course, outright robbed in the quarter-final. Individuals have no cause for disappointment – many performed admirably given the resources and facilities available.

There, perhaps, is the issue, however. “Team Ireland” (and “Team Northern Ireland” in Commonwealth Games) has consistently now won only a handful of medals, and even those have usually been confined to one or two disciplines. Sure, therefore, when it comes to Olympic sport the island of Ireland needs to think again – just as the UK did in 1996 having won just one gold medal (imagine!!)

Ireland, even as an island, cannot of course hope to match Great Britain in terms of the availability of resources and facilities. It can, however, copy much of what has proven so successful there, or in other comparably sized countries such as Denmark and New Zealand. It can identify talent more efficiently; it can invest in world-class facilities (which have potential community as well as “elite” benefit); most of all, perhaps, it can focus on funding coaching.

“Team Ireland” at the Olympics (as Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games) has some reason for pride, but fundamentally it is second rate. If it wishes to close the gap with the real first-class performers, it will need to reform fundamentally how it operates. It will also need to aim considerably higher.

[Just one slight niggle – we can’t have it both ways re GB’s result. Either positions are determined on total medals (in which case GB’s performance in 2016 was better than 2012 but it came third, not second, in the table) or on golds (in which case GB came second in 2016 but its result was narrowly worse than 2012, when it won 29 golds). According to the IOC, it is the latter.]

#Olympics – who is coming second?

With the United States (39 gold, 106 medals) well out in front, and Germany (16, 39) and Russia (13, 48) well back, the question over the next 24 hours or so becomes which country will come second – Great Britain & NI (26, 63) or China (23, 67)?

The likelihood is that it will be GB on golds and China on overall medals – but perfection on one side and disaster on the other could yet change that. It will almost all be decided by 3am (UK time).

Gracenote Sports tried to project it but already a number of predictions have not gone to plan.

The certain medalists for either team are:

2300 (Sat) CN gold or silver – women’s team (volleyball)

1900 (Sun) GB gold or silver – Joe Joyce (boxing)

Thus, the worst GB can finish is with 64 medals, and China 68.

The likely medalists in addition are (all on Sat eve/Sun morning UK time):

2200 CN – Chen Aisen (diving)

2200 CN – Qiu Bo (diving)

0200 GB – Mo Farah (athletics)

0215 GB – women’s relay team (athletics)

Of these, you would say the first three are almost guaranteed. Notably, however, China‘s cannot both be gold as they are in the same competition; but conversely GB‘s are less likely to be golds and silvers anyway.

Of course, there can always be surprises elsewhere – to move ahead on medals, GB will probably need one; to move ahead on golds, China will definitely need one!

Ultimately, we could see it all decided by taekwondo. On the men’s side, there is only one possible (not necessarily likely) medal for either in the last event as of the quarter-final stage:

2030 GB – Mahama Cho [quarter-final match]

Indeed, there could be a mouthwatering (and conceivably even decisive in terms of second place in the official medals table) final in the women’s last event:

0215 – Shuyin Zheng (China) v Bianca Walkden (GB)

The bet is both teams will have their fair share of wins and losses, leaving GB ahead on golds and China on medals. It will then be pointed out that the IOC officially places teams by golds…

£9m on an air route is dubious at best

I have long been an advocate of direct air routes from Belfast to enhance economic connections and thus give us the means of promoting export routes and inward investment. Thus, I reckoned the reduction in Air Passenger Duty for Northern Ireland, despite the often unmentioned cost of £2.4m annually from other devolved public services, was on balance a worthwhile risk to maintain one such direct link to Newark. If it was true that the route is inevitably loss-making, however, that risk would fail.

However it now appears that United Airlines, the operator of the route, has returned to the Executive for another £9m bail-out. This demonstrates that indeed the route is inevitably loss-making. This is no longer a “risk” – it is a constant direct subsidy from the Northern Ireland rate-payer to an American airline.

I for one am unconvinced that we pay our taxes and rates to subsidise an American airline to fly here, when very few people use the route (I last used it in 2005; my next flight to North America is ex-Dublin because it offers more routes at more times). A still bigger issue, perhaps, is it demonstrates the Executive’s inevitable short-termism, and its inability to be pro-active.

The Executive is, not for the first time, answering the question in the wrong order. The question is not “How can we maintain an air route to Belfast to boost our economy?”, but rather “How can we boost our economy to maintain an air route to Belfast?”

In other words, the real issue is why is it that an air route from New York to Belfast is not profit-making? I would suggest it is a combination of how little business is actually done in Belfast, and how easy it is to fly to Dublin (barely an hour away from the southern outskirts of Greater Belfast now anyway).

This goes beyond the obvious transport issues – Dublin’s growth as a European hub airport; the nonsense of a city the size of Belfast having two airports; the lack of proper road and rail connections to either of those airports; etc.

It is in fact a more fundamental issue that Belfast (and Northern Ireland in general) is not worth coming to economically. And remember, this is the same Executive taking money out of skills…


No excuse not to upgrade NI A1 immediately

Yet another life, horribly, was lost on Northern Ireland’s A1 dual carriageway this month. While I do not wish to impose upon the specifics of that incident, it is a fact that almost every fatality on that road occurs near and because of a “gap junction” – i.e. an area where there is no central barrier and vehicles are allowed to turn right across the traffic.

I am not the only one to have noticed.

The reason such “gap junctions” are lethal is obvious and requires no investigation. A road designed for speeds of 120kmh (and allowing 115kmh) then sees vehicles moving across each other, and thus into potential collision. The point is obvious; indeed, I appeared on an interview on UTV fully eleven years ago to point it out.

Thus, the task is simple – the entirety of the A1 from the Hillsborough Roundabout to the border should have an unbroken central barrier. That way, vehicles can proceed safely at 70mph, with no prospect of a crossing collision. A road built to such a standard would, on average, see less than a fatality a year – compared to five last year and two already this. Over the eleven years since that interview, that means the vast bulk of fatalities have been simply unnecessary – a horrific toll.

The issue is, of course, slightly complicated by the fact that simply putting a central barrier in place would mean there would be very few locations from which to exit the road. The task then is to build some more “grade-separated” junctions enabling traffic to leave and enter the road to the left (not crossing traffic), and then cross over the road if necessary via elevated bridges. Some such junctions, notably close to Hillsborough itself, have already been constructed.

This, however, only makes the failure to fix the road more scurrilous. Plans already exist for four (effectively five) new grade-separated junctions [illustrated as ever by Wesley Johnston] between Hillsborough and Banbridge:

  • Listullycurran (the current western exit marked “Maze, Moira”);
  • Gowdystown (just north of the Halfway House, marked “Dromore” to southeast);
  • Skelton’s (marked “Blackskull, Donaghcloney” to west);
  • Waringsford Rd (close to a quarry site just north of Banbridge); and
  • upgrade to Castlewellan Rd from Banbridge.

Collectively, these would cost around £50 million.

Additionally, to complete the project, two more junctions would need to be planned and constructed between Loughbrickland and Dromantine (the latter a site for four relatively recent fatalities), something which on average would cost just another £25 million.

By the standards of road construction, £75 million is peanuts – just half the proposed York Street Interchange, for a road which would thus be made massively safer.

It is nothing short of criminal that this work has not already been completed. The five junctions should be constructed and the two remaining ones planned absolutely without delay. Such unnecessary loss of life is simply inexcusable.


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