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First Reflections of 2019



11 February 2019

Though the term backstop is an unappealing one to use even colloquially for part of a treaty or a political declaration a mechanism to bring it to an end could be a bilateral side treaty between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom that specified that it would end when the parliaments of both nations had voted for it to do so.

This would be a treaty between two sovereign nations. Whatever else the EU is it is not a sovereign nation.

It is possible that the Republic of Ireland would detain the United Kingdom in an arrangement longer than it might have desired but not for ever. Both nations have a strong political interest in maintaining open border arrangements.

The treaty between the EU and the United Kingdom would then need to be modified in advance to remove the perception of veto power lying with the EU.

To terminate the side treaty the United Kingdom would have to seek the approval of one nation not 27.

8 March 2019

It is true that this is a matter best dealt with by a political solution not a legal one but it is not an outlandish concept that the United Kingdom serve notice of a wish to end membership of a customs union as part of a referral to arbitration.

In arbitration it is for the panel to rule whether it has jurisdiction to decide the issue based on the terms of the arbitration agreement. This does not subvert the EU's legal order. If it rules it does not have jurisdiction, so be it. The political problem will have been very clearly flagged up for urgent solution.

What we have read in the press may, of course, be an oversimplification of the issues. It needs looking at again, though.

13 March 2019

It is highly unclear what the outcome and import of the two votes in the House of Commons tonight and tomorrow will be. Once they have taken place it will be clearer.

To date the EU has got the better of the negotiations but it also has made errors.

In the event of the votes resulting in 'no deal' being off the table, for the time being probably, and the U.K. requests an extension, the period we would favour is 21 months.

As that period draws to an end the British government could put an agreement to the people in a general election though it would be under no obligation to do so. For neither the Conservatives nor Labour is a second referendum anywhere near a first choice outcome.

This time everything should go into the pot for negotiation and everything pressed on with in parallel as fast as possible so the end result is a comprehensive settlement.

In our view the EU made tactical errors in phasing the negotiations and holding up discussions on substance to put the U.K. under time pressure. It did result in agreements on money and a fair bit more but lack of visibility on substance, much of which has not been agreed yet, has meant that the withdrawal agreement has been poorly supported. Without ratification the EU's gains remain provisional.

The U.K. is likely to do better in such negotiations but it is clear imposing disbenefits on the U.K. also imposes them on the EU.

How the question of what happens to elections to the European Parliament is handled is perhaps best left to suggestions from the EU.

If an extension were to be short it is clear that the purpose would have to centre around ratifying withdrawal agreement terms, which may be harder than reaching a comprehensive settlement, to reach an early Brexit.

So the purposes of long or short extension differ.

4 May 2019

Sometimes one thinks Brexit has entered its Jardyce v Jarndyce phase. It will be settled one day but normal people just want to get on with their lives unchanged in the meantime. In a way we are in the best place; Britain is clearly not going to be dragooned into closer political union whilst existing relations are not substantially disrupted. Is that as good a negotiating objective as many other outcomes?

Sometimes one cannot help being critical of the 'permanent' government objectives whilst wishing to be sympathetic.

One case was government support of vehicle manufacturers producing diesel engines supposedly in the aid of emissions reductions. The particulates problem and the larger size of most diesel engines - small diesel engines are not that efficient - knocked that one on the head in logical terms.

Much better would have been to encourage small capacity petrol-electric hybrids in advance of a switch to all electric.

Another is trying to bully householders into using condensing boilers. The old fashion 'geysers' for water heating that were around till the eighties were unpopular for a reason - they forever broke down. A condensing boiler is more complicated, costs more, is more carbon intensive in manufacture, breaks down more often, lasts less long and is only more energy efficient on the margins compared with a well managed traditional boiler.

It is all very well policy being 'evidence based,' meaning often an academic study has proved that something is demonstrably possible instead of accepting the weight of professional evidence of practitioners that it will not work in practice very well. If you retire all the people with practical professional qualifications and stock policy making cadres with recent PhDs instead what do you expect?

Forget retrofitting the existing housing stock at the expense of the householder - the walls end up impracticably six inches thicker - but reintroduce more widely available loft insulation grants. Spend much less as a nation by paying more than is done now for electricity produced by domestic solar panels and save on new power stations.

A long time ago I was on the building regulations advisory committee. When one energy saving policy was adopted I thought 'oh no, all domestic windows are going to get smaller and everything we learnt about daylight factors is, to borrow a phrase, going to go out of the window'.

I suppose a small amount of fuel has been saved, though maybe not if people leave the lights on, less so with boilers and with diesel engines but the outcome of this one has been dull architecture.

So you got a binary. Curtain walling for commercial buildings, because this type of glass can be made energy efficient, and small windows for residential building which at one point verged on the unhealthy. (Windows are getting a little bigger again as glazing becomes more energy efficient.)

I like windows of different shapes and sizes. Without a creative way of addressing them we would not have had Frank Lloyd Wright or Le Corbusier, both prone to giving domestic buildings a lot of natural light, and shade as well when needed. In the photograph above we have an academic building by Sir Hugh Casson from the sixties.

I have not been in this wing. The clerestories do not look like true clerestories but I like the horizontal lines they produce. The vertical slit windows might typically be used in a library. It still looks fresh 50 years on and this type of wall can be made more energy efficient than curtain walling. This is the south facing elevation. Go round to the north side and the windows are much bigger.

We have too much theoretical policy making and too much petty governance but the big things that both the market and citizens are willing to do given some broad guidelines and small incentives, like significantly scaling back the use of diesel for cars in the next decade and expanding the use of small scale solar power generation given its falling cost, are not done.