There has been a flurry of new information from major shadow cabinet figures about Brexit this week, after what seemed liked an enforced silence on the topic. Unfortunately, it all makes as much sense as it usually does. John McDonnell has jumped on the extremely irritating “a” customs union with the EU, not be confused with “the” Customs Union most politicians seem to know very little about and yet feel must be discarded bandwagon.
“We are not supporting membership of “the” Customs Union but we are looking at “a” customs union. The reason we are saying “a” customs union is because we don’t want the same asymmetric relationship that Turkey have got. What we would want is to negotiate around our ability to influence the trade negotiations that would take place on behalf of us all, both ourselves and other European countries in terms of trade via a customs union.”
Okay, just to start on a technical point, Turkey isn’t in “the” Customs Union – it has “a” customs union with the EU. Which, yes, is asymmetrical because for loads of reasons it would be better for Turkey to be in “the” Customs Union, but that’s not on offer. So, confusingly McDonnell says he wants “a” customs union, which is what Turkey has, but not “the” Customs Union. Yet he doesn’t want to be like Turkey. Do you still think calling Labour’s EU policy confusing an unfair generalisation?
In case you were wondering what the difference between “a” customs union and being in “the” Customs Union” actually is: if you are in “a” customs union” of any description with another trade bloc, let us say for argument, the EU, you have to adjust your tariffs to all be the same across the whole of the customs union covered. That what a customs union is. Neither Tory nor Labour frontbenches want to commit to staying in the Customs Union because it means you can’t strike trade deals with third countries. However, any sort of customs union with the EU would involve common tariffs. So, even if the UK was technically allowed to strike trade deals, that would be a useless power since we couldn’t offer any tariffs that differed from the EU, and the EU would have the de facto ability to scupper any trade deal anyhow since any trade deal would have to fit with their customs arrangements. In others words, the only difference between the UK being in “a” customs union with the EU as opposed to in “the” Customs Union is that the latter is much better since it’s clearer and more robust all the supposed benefits of the former are completely chimerical anyhow.
Onto what Emily Thornberry said this week about Brexit, and if you are feeling in anyway queasy already, please read the rest of this article when your constitution feels prepared for it. She said that being in a customs union with the EU was the only way to get round the Irish border problem – which has the advantage of actually being true. But then Thornberry said “Technically because we’re leaving the EU we can’t be in the customs union that we’re in now.” There is nothing “technically” stopping the UK from being inside the Customs Union post-Brexit – if the Commission was up for it and the British government wanted it, then it would happen.
Emily then went on to talk about what life would be like when we could strike trade deals with third countries: “I would say that we would take advantage of being in a partnership with the EU in order to be able to, for example, negotiate with China. China wouldn’t just be negotiating with Britain, it would be Britain and the EU.” Yes, Emily, I think there is a term for this kind of arrangement, this whole countries working with the EU to strike trade deals that will apply to both the country in question and the European Union as a whole. It’s called being a European Union member. But hey, perhaps that’s what Leavers really voted for after all: paying a lot of money to have a deal worse than Turkey gets while helping the EU strike trade deals we will only get partial, peripheral benefit from. Sign me up.