Week in Review: Customs union fight approaches its climax

As Ivan Rogers noted this week, the priorities of the Brexit debate are insane. It is, in the words of Britain’s former EU man, "simply absurd" the way the customs union is the "only apparent subject for discussion".

The union, which eradicates tariffs on goods moving across borders in Europe while harmonising them for things coming in from outside, is a tiny part of the Brexit debacle. People have begun to talk as if it somehow solves the Irish border problem, but it does not. You need single market membership on goods to make sure there are no checks at the border. It is also false to really consider the customs union in total separation from the single market. It functions the way it does because of the single market and is reliant on it.

There is something almost comically silly about a services-based economy focusing so relentlessly on a customs union while ignoring the shared regulatory functions of the European project which offer it so many advantages.

But, for various reasons, that is where we are. One of the chief reasons is the Irish border and the unexpected manner in which it has gradually developed such seriousness as to make all other Brexit issues swirl around its centre of gravity. Without a customs union solution, there are checks on the border, for country-of-origin requirements and other matters.

But there are reasons of political strategy that have forced the customs union to the fore as well. For several people in Labour, the customs union solved a problem. It separated the Brexit issue from the immigration issue. By avoiding discussion of the single market, it put the freedom of movement argument in its box. Brexit supporters were unable to reply that Labour wanted unlimited immigration - the charge which most unnerves especially northern industrial-town MPs.

This was a marriage of convenience. Customs union membership was the only softening of Brexit some Labour figures were interested in. Others thought it was strategically useful to secure soft Brexit base-camp with a government U-turn on the customs union, then fight for single market membership from there.

And there was something else. Customs union membership is perhaps the only major issue on which there is probably a Commons majority in the Brexit debate. There is no Commons majority for no-deal Brexit, or hard Brexit, or for the likely contents of a free trade agreement with China or the US, or for single market membership, or for leaving the single market, given its ramifications, or for Remain. But there probably is a majority for customs union membership. It has the considerable political advantage of being doable.

We will find out just how doable it is next month, when MPs are set to vote on it. In the mean time, Brussels is briefing against Theresa May’s three customs plans.

The customs partnership would require inhuman degrees of bureaucracy and demand that the EU spends lots of money creating a weak system relying on a third party which would amass them less money than what they have right now.

The maximum facilitation model would take years to sort out and would not work. It is not a thing, it is just a posh way of saying that you are not going to check lorries anymore.

And then there is the third idea, which is to try and reinterpret the Irish ‘backstop’ solution in the existing draft agreements as an extra transition in which all the UK stays in the customs union.

This last idea has a kind of impertinent wit to it. There is something charming about how the UK is seeking to subvert an EU victory over it into a weapon against Brussels. Plus, it showed Brexiters were starting to accept that the planned transition, which runs to the end of 2020, would not be long enough. Now, a plan lasting until 2023 is being suggested.

But the reality, as a Brussels insider briefed journalists last night, is that Barnier is not going to have the backstop solution turn into a whole-UK solution. That can only come through new UK red lines on trade in which it wants to stay in the customs union and single market. Also, the backstop is not a backstop if it is time limited. It’s like having a safety-net with limited netting.

There is a fourth idea, which was broadly supported by Rogers and which, with mild variation, is promoted by the Institute of Directors (IoD): to have a partial customs union.

The logic of this comes down to what Britain can offer other countries in trade deals. The reason you can’t really sign trade deals inside a customs union is because you can’t mess with your tariffs. If Britain does go out looking for new deals it is going to lower those tariffs, allow other countries to send in lots of cheap agricultural and industrial goods, and in exchange try to secure penetration of its financial services into their market.

Whether that can be achieved, given nervousness around financial services, is another matter. Whether it is a valid democratic expression of the referendum vote, given that it would punish Leave areas and reward Remain ones, is also up for debate. But put that to one side for a moment.

Industrial tariffs are already very low. So the UK could stay inside the customs union for those goods. The IoD adds processed agricultural goods to this mix. But Britain could extract other agricultural goods from the customs union. This would give it something to negotiate with in trade deals, but preserve as much frictionless trade as possible.

There is a precedent for this - Turkey. But it is not a particularly good one. And in reality no-one has any idea if this idea would fly, either in negotiation or on the ground. It would also not remove the Irish border problem, because you’d need checks. But it certainly has a better chance than the other three.

And then there is the fifth idea: to simply stay in the customs union. This is the true backstop, not in Brexit talks, but in the Commons timetable. When the Lords amendment on it comes back next month, MPs can force the government to do what it has seemingly been incapable of doing until now: making a decision. What happens after that - to the red lines, to the prime minister, to her Cabinet, and to the hard rump of Tory European Research Group Brexiters, is anyone’ guess. Another period of intense political chaos could be just around the corner.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

What one piece of Jacob Rees-Mogg nonsense tells us about Brexit tactics

So here's a story about how Jacob Rees-Mogg's nonsense can travel halfway around the world before the fact-checkers have got their boots on. But it's not about fake news or Cambridge Analytica or anything like that. It's about how Brexit supporters talk misleading gibberish with a particular manner intended to mislead the public.

On May 10th, Mogg went on the Daily Politics and said this:

"If you are in a negotiation for a free trade agreement, you can maintain your existing standards for ten years under WTO rules. So we have ten years from the point at which we leave the European Union to negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU which would mean we can carry on with our zero tariffs."

There's a clip here:

It's not clear quite what he meant by this. Experts in the field are confused by it. Peter Ungphakhorn, who spent twenty years with the WTO secretariat, can't make head or tail of it. Steve Peers, who is professor of EU, Human Rights and World Trade Law at the University of Essex, is similarly nonplussed. Lorand Bartels, reader in International Law at Cambridge and senior counsel at Linklaters, is also baffled. It is a particularly confused bit of nonsense.

As best as they and other trade experts can figure it out, Mogg is probably trying to refer to Paragraph 5 of Article XXIV of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which is the precursor agreement to the WTO. How do they know? Well it's certainly not because of his description of it, which has little connection to its contents. Piecing together what's happening here is like trying to solve a murder mystery game constructed by five-year-olds. It's basic, but then also so unpredictable as to make it difficult.

Mogg specifically mentions ten years. That's useful, because if he didn't it's quite possible no-one could have even comprehended his legal argument enough to refute it. Paragraph 5(c) of Article XXIV refers to plans for the formation of a customs unions or free trade agreement "within a reasonable length of time".

A separate WTO document explaining the text states that the reasonable length of time "should exceed ten years only in exceptional cases". So this seems to be the provision Mogg is referring to. We have pieced the clues together and found a weapon.

Mogg seems to be in a muddle about what the ten-year window is for and to whom it applies. In the clip he says it refers to standards, but this provision has nothing to do with standards. Presumably he means tariffs, which is the context of the discussion, but it is hard to tell.

The ten-year period is for an interim agreement between two negotiating partners as they set up a free trade agreement or customs union. People have these agreements because they usually want to change their trading arrangements slowly.

But this is of little help to the UK in Brexit negotiations. For a start, the interim arrangement requires that you have a "plan and schedule" towards an end-state. It doesn't just freeze-frame your status quo for a decade while you work out what you're doing. And if it did, Mogg would be the first one to complain that we were still strapped to EU rules. Even on his own terms, the argument makes no sense.

Secondly, the provision is for forming a customs union or free trade agreement, not leaving one. Given that no details are included about how you do leave one, it doesn't seem to offer any protections.

This part of the agreement is quite wishy washy and lawyers can get up to all sorts of mucky stuff with it. Maybe some smart alec could claim that once Article 50 is over the new period would function as the start of trade talks and have to encapsulate and yet simultaneously ignore all that came before it.

Good luck with that. Experts in this area of international law are clear that it does not do anything like what Mogg is claiming. Certainly if your policy is to try to rely on this provision for your country's economic security, then you might want to significantly rethink the way you're going about things.

But it doesn't matter. Mogg can churn this stuff out quicker than people can read the impenetrable legal text on the WTO website, talk to legal experts, critique it and then complain on Twitter. And he does so in a manner that has a practiced confidence and calm to it.

Watch that clip again. A normal viewer who is not particularly invested in this debate would come out of it thinking that everything is fine, the consequences of our current course of action are minimal and all those experts in the House of Lords don't know what they're on about. In fact, it is a man flapping a non-existent piece of paper in the air as he demands we drive the economy off a cliff.

This is how they mislead the public. They smother them in nonsense - the type of nonsense so technical, jargon-filled and tedious that no-one in their right mind looks into it - and then tell them, with a soft smile and a posh accent, that everything will be OK.

It is telling that a political movement which defines itself through the will of the people should be so accomplished at misleading it.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Week in Review: Reluctant royalists hide from royal weddings

Royal events bring out the worst in everyone. Monarchists turn into babbling mystics, as if they were discussing a magic ritual rather than a trumped-up Hello magazine photoshoot. Republicans turn into bores, banging on about the same old argument they've been making for the last 20 years.

Even otherwise normal people become quite curtain-twitchy. What happened to Meghan Markle's dad? Will he come or won't he? Who will walk her down the aisle? Will her mum do it instead? If not, why not?

No-one seemed to ask the most prescient question: Who cares? Maybe her mum wasn't up for it? Maybe someone with no experience of public engagements was a bit put off by appearing in front the entire planet. Maybe they don't get on. It is none of our business.

There is a kind of tawdry public laundry at these events, where any privacy is eradicated and the messy personal lives of people involved are treated like legitimate matters of public concern. Did they know what they were getting into when they chose to enter the royal family? Yes. Is it still grim to watch the facile, busybody spectacle roll along? Yes it is.

But spare a thought during this period for the smallest, most hard-done by minority: reluctant constitutional monarchists. They have few allies and no safe tribal grounds to hide away in. They baffle royalists and are condemned by republicans. They are horribly embarrassed by all the wedding nonsense, but don't even get to demand, intuitively, that we should just scrap the whole thing. They have to grin and bear it.

Reluctant monarchists come from a variety of different schools of thought. For many of them, the question about the head of state isn't really about what would you like, but what you'd like less. They often don't support the royal family, it's just that they can't see any acceptable alternative. No-one wants a president. Just imagine a Labour or Tory careerist being put up as head of state. 

For others, it's useful that the head of state role is fulfilled by someone without democratic input. As soon as you vote for them, some people did not vote for them. If someone is to function as a depository of benign patriotic sentiment, they need to be completely free of party politics and electioneering.

For others, it's a simple 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' calculation. Of all the things that need repair in this country, the monarchy comes very far down the list. They still command public support, among members of all parties, among Leavers and Remainers, among young and old, in the cities and the countryside. The Queen in particular - but also, to a greater extent than is acknowledged, her offspring - continue to conduct themselves with a visible sense of duty and restraint. They get a lot of money for their troubles, of course, but the price is a life completely and utterly controlled by institution and national responsibility. Your life is not really your own, and it is hard to think of any income which would make up for that fact.

Whatever the argument, reluctant royalists are surprisingly common. And this is basically the worst time for them. The condition of membership is not just support for the monarchy - it is also acute embarrassment at all the pomp and ceremony something like a royal wedding entails.

Reluctant royalism is a very British club. It demands discomfort, resignation and silent, simmering frustration. This club will spend the weekend neither watching the royal wedding nor ranting and raving against it. The best place for it is in the pub. Probably in the corner.

But all things told, it's a good club for the times. It is a club which asks you to like and dislike things simultaneously. It is a club which asks you to weigh up political priorities, decide which one you value most, and then accept certain sacrifices in order to preserve it. It is a club of painful compromise. And in a world where politics is increasingly spoken of as if it were something very simple, as if easy answers could be provided for complex questions, that is maybe something to admire.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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