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“Get Brexit done” was British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s slogan when he ran for election two years ago. Since then, the U.K. has pulled out of the European Union after more than four decades of membership and several years of wrangling over divorce terms.
And yet the quarrels go on: The U.K. and the EU of now 27 nations are once again trading accusations and insults as they try to resolve rough spots in their relationship.
WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
The current conflict centers on Northern Ireland, the only part of the U.K. that shares a land border with an EU member — Ireland.
While Britain was part of the EU’s vast free trade single market, there were no barriers to people and goods crossing that border. The open frontier helped underpin the peace process that ended decades of Catholic-Protestant violence in Northern Ireland because it allowed the people there, whatever their identity, to feel at home in both Ireland and the U.K.
By taking the U.K. out of the EU’s economic order, Brexit created new barriers and checks on trade. Both Britain and the EU agreed such checks could not take place on the Ireland-Northern Ireland border because of the risk to the peace process.
The alternative was putting a customs border in the Irish Sea — between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. But the new sea border has brought headaches and red tape for businesses, and has riled Northern Ireland’s Protestant unionists, who say it weakens Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom and threatens their British identity.
WHY IS THE CONFLICT ERUPTING NOW?
Problems have been piling up since the U.K. left the EU’s economic embrace, including the bloc’s single market, at the end of 2020.
Under the divorce agreement, the British government was required to impose customs checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. It has repeatedly postponed introducing them, to the annoyance of the EU.
Specific problems have emerged around agricultural and food products — most prominently a looming ban on chilled meat products entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. that spurred headlines about a “sausage war.”
Opposition from Northern Ireland unionists to the deal has hardened. Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, said Tuesday that “if it is not replaced, then it will condemn Northern Ireland to further harm and instability.”
Anger over the new arrangements helped fuel several nights of violence in Northern Ireland in April, largely in Protestant areas, that saw youths hurl bricks, fireworks and petrol bombs at police.
That has led the British government to argue that the Brexit deal itself — negotiated and agreed by the U.K. and the EU — is undermining the peace process.
WHAT DOES THE EU SAY?
The EU agrees that the Northern Ireland arrangements are not working well. On Wednesday, it offered proposals to ease the burden by cutting checks on food, plant and animal products by 80% and paperwork for transport companies in half.
On the eve of that move, the U.K. raised the stakes again, demanding the EU also remove the European Court of Justice as the ultimate arbiter of the Brexit agreement and instead agree to international arbitration.
The EU is highly unlikely to accept that. The bloc’s highest court is seen as the pinnacle of the EU single market, and Brussels has vowed not to undermine its own order.
Britain’s demand has led some in the EU to doubt Johnson’s government ever was sincere about sticking to the agreement.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT?
The EU and the U.K. say they will hold several weeks of “intensive” talks on the latest proposals.
The talks could lead to a breakthrough or a breakdown; the signals are mixed. On the one hand, there have been moments during Brexit when the U.K. threatened to walk away without a deal, only to compromise at the last minute. This could be another one.
But if the British government sticks to its insistence on ruling out a role for the European court, it is hard to see room for compromise.
In that case, Britain says it will trigger an emergency break clause that allows either side to suspend the Brexit agreement if it is causing exceptional hardship. Such a move would infuriate the EU, which is likely to respond with legal action and possibly economic sanctions against the U.K.
It could spiral into an all-out trade war — one that is likely to hit the U.K. economy harder than that of the much bigger bloc.
Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists, meanwhile, are threatening to collapse the power-sharing Belfast government if the deal is not ripped up, a move that would trigger elections and plunge the region into fresh uncertainty.
And other have suggested Mr Lang’s remarks reflect Germany’s alarm and the damage inflicted on its massive car manufacturing industry by Brexit. Speaking on Thursday, Mr Lang, the managing director of the Federation of German Industries (BDI), said UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson “cannot refuse” to act in accordance with the Northern Ireland Protocol.
He explained: “Neither the British nor the EU are allowed to shake the treaty.
“Both sides must stand by their obligations without any ifs or buts.”
He added: “The British Government cannot refuse to act constructively in the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“Otherwise, everyone involved will have to fear tariff spirals and other countermeasures in trade policy.”
His remarks left large numbers of Express.co.uk readers deeply unimpressed, according to yesterday’s comments section.
One, JustAsking, posted: “Who do these people think they are?
“A German Industrial leader thinking he can tell a Sovereign Country what we can and can’t do.
“Their arrogance knows no bounds.”
Meanwhile, Anne Richardson asked: “Why are we under the power (laws) of a foreign state?
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“We fought a world war so we would not be under the thumb of these bullies.
Referring to Volkswagen’s warning the 30,000 jobs in Germany could be jeopardised by Brexit, Steve Ward said: “Just a day after VW wets the bed cos we aren’t buying their cars anymore.
“What could possibly make them believe they could spit in our faces then have us buy their goods.”
Colin Price said: “I suppose losing billions of euros because we don’t want your crap anymore and the patriotic brits are saying ‘we are not buying eu goods anymore’, yes I suppose that hurts.”
Thomas Richards pointed out: “The GB Pound is today nine percent higher than January 21 when we left the EU. Not doing so badly are we?
Nelson Montgomery said: “Joachim Lang is only shooting his mouth off because since the UK left the EU, German car sales have dropped 12.6 percent year on year and there is the possibility that VW will have to make 30,000 workers redundant.
“He’s only worried about his bank balance nothing else.”
The car manufacturing industry made up 26.7 percent of the total volume of trade between the UK and Germany in 2016 – but was slashed to less than a fifth (18.8 percent) in 2020.
Over the course of the last five years, German car exports have fallen by an average of 14.1 percent annually, and new registrations in Britain have dropped by an average of 11.8 percent.
Consequently, German exports almost halved in value between 2015 and 2020 – from €30.4billion to €16.4billion.
“Christmas will go ahead, we’ll be able to see our friends and families. There will be food, there will be gifts.” Transport Secretary Grant Shapps sounded like a cheery character in a Dickensian novel, reassuring a group of bright-eyed children that Santa was coming after all.
But as the minister was bursting with Boris Johnson-style bonhomie on his breakfast media round on Friday, a wary and weary public will have been suspicious that he even needed to make such promises at all.
That is because the underlying message from Shapps was that supply-chain problems made predictions uncertain. What type of food and gifts, and how many of each, will be available is still an open question.
The Government clearly feels it needs to tell the nation that it’ll be all right on the night. Just a day before Shapps spoke, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said he was “confident there will be a good amount of Christmas presents available for everyone to buy” (though the word “good” felt like something from a suboptimal Ofsted school report).
Such confidence intervals from ministers stem from their boss. Nearly two weeks ago at the start of the Tory conference, the Prime Minister jokingly set the bar for Christmas success pretty low. “I’ll make you a very confident prediction,” he told Sky News, with a laugh. “This Christmas will be considerably better than last Christmas… you’ve got that on the record.”
Since then, even the PM has had to get serious about shortages, amid fears of empty shelves for everything from pigs in blankets to PlayStations.
He appointed ex-Tesco boss “Drastic” Dave Lewis as his new supply-chain czar. He put Michael Gove in charge of a new National Economic Recovery Taskforce (Logistics), effectively making him “Minister for Christmas”.
Brits may be horrified by the appearance of the first Christmas TV ad (this year Very.co.uk, on 1 October), but they are having to fast-forward preparations themselves. Amazon is to push shoppers to order four weeks earlier than usual and Ocado Christmas delivery slots have already sold out. One in three shoppers has started stocking up on groceries.
And the problem with the PM’s predictions of a better Christmas than 2020 is that his previous optimism has proved misplaced, if not downright dangerous. Last year, he said it would be “frankly inhuman” to criminalise household mixing for the festive period, only to do just that three days later for people in London and the South-east.
Indeed, many believe that his lingering terror of being labelled a “Christmas killjoy” led to his failure to order a nationwide lockdown on 19 December. By then, the Kent variant of the virus was rampant but Johnson still went ahead and relaxed the rules for households outside the South-east. It took until 6 January for a full lockdown to be imposed in the North and Midlands to properly start combatting the deadly Covid third wave.
This year we thankfully have the huge extra defence of the vaccines to prevent similar devastation. But as the Delta wave taught us in early summer, even double-jabbed people can fall victim if cases soar again.
There are real fears in Whitehall about the pressure on the NHS, which is already at a much higher level of hospitalisations than last October, if flu returns with a vengeance and Covid numbers take off again.
Despite Shapps’ prediction that we will be able to see our families and friends over Christmas, it is not impossible to imagine Government advice on reduced visits to care homes or numbers of people mixing with elderly relatives. Concerns over low booster rate numbers, and slow take-up among school pupils, add to those worries.
The wider fear is not of a Christmas crisis for the NHS, but a winter crisis that lasts months. Staff shortages – due to sickness, stress or early retirement of a workforce that has been shattered by the pandemic – feel like they are getting chronic in midwifery and nursing. The Chancellor’s Budget and Spending Review cannot be Scrooge-like with funding.
As for the economy, the PM may regret suggesting the shortages are mere bumps in the road – a “period of adjustment” caused by Brexit forcing wages up and immigration down. As I wrote earlier this week, inflation is a major fear among ministers and backbenchers, and one that will last well into next year.
And although Johnson may be dreaming of a bright Christmas, some economists suggest all our Christmases may be tight, for several years at least. “Can’t get the parts, mate” is a common refrain in the building trade and many other industries. Leaving the UK’s wealth on the shelf is not exactly the future many Leave voters envisaged in 2016.
The danger is that Brexit damage to the economy may be for life, not just for Christmas. The Institute for Fiscal Studies this week suggested permanent “scarring” to growth from Covid could be upto 3 per cent. Yet the Office for Budget Responsibility says Brexit itself dwarfs that, with 4 per cent hit to growth in the medium term from frictions to trade with our biggest partner.
The PM and his team rightly point out that there are some genuinely global reasons for the supply chain shortages. But just Gordon Brown failed to convince the public in 2010 that the financial crisis was down to world factors not Labour profligacy, this government will know the voters are often more focused on their own backyard.
For now, Johnson still basks in a healthy 10-point lead in the opinion polls. It seems that he can even brazen out £20-a-week cuts to Universal Credit, which could prove to be the pinch that stole Christmas for millions of families saving for presents and struggling with energy bills.
Despite Labour’s current failure to enthuse voters with their alternative, both No.10 and Tory backbenchers know that the real challenge will be to retain support through the winter months, not just a festive few days.