Brexit: confusion and muddle

Richard North

There is currently very little sign that May will travel to next week’s emergency European Council with the coherent plan the EU says will be necessary to grant the UK a further delay to Brexit, which is currently scheduled to happen on Friday. So says the Guardian, telling us nothing we didn’t know already.

As to the May/Corbyn talks, shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, who has been part of the Labour delegation, says the mood of the talks had been “quite a positive and hopeful one”, but little has been achieved.

But then, this is Rebecca Long-Bailey, who confided in Andrew Marr about his party’s ambitions for a customs union. It’s important, she said, “to state that the reason we’re calling for a customs union is to protect vital supply chains. Manufacturing particularly. So we can have that frictionless trade”.

That, three years into the Brexit process, is the best a senior Labour MP can manage, one who is a key member of the party’s team – someone who believes that a customs union can deliver “frictionless trade”.

But, on the other side of the divide, there is Andrea Leadsom, and things there are not much better. Asked by Andrew Marr what her reaction would be to the prime minister agreeing a customs union deal with the Labour Party, she said:

I think the Prime Minister’s proposal is an excellent proposal and it has a customs arrangement within it to ensure completely tariff-free and non-tariff barrier free customs arrangements for agrifoods and industrialised goods. So that is a type of customs arrangement.

Both sides are talking gibberish. The idea that “frictionless trade” is a consequence of a customs union is absurd, yet Leadsom’s assertion that a “customs arrangement” – whatever that actually means – can ensure “completely tariff-free and non-tariff barrier free customs arrangements for agrifoods and industrialised goods” is just not in the real world.

The elimination of the non-tariff barriers comes with a regulatory union, otherwise known as the Single Market – something entirely distinct from anything directly to do with customs, and something which, under normal circumstances, brings with it freedom of movement.

But if that is confusing enough, Leadsom goes on to say that, “Jeremy Corbyn originally said he wanted a customs union with no free movement and with the ability to negotiate our own free trade deals”. Now that, she adds, is “what the Prime Minister’s own customs arrangement offers”.

There is no linear relationship between the claims, and now way of tying together the terms being used. They are jumbled together in a way that defies coherences and speaks of nothing but the most profound intellectual confusion.

To this, there is no remedy – not the slightest chance of any improvement. In August 2015, I wrote a blogpost entitled “the naming of parts”, alluding to the poem by Henry Reed on the ritual of learning the parts of a rifle, one of the first steps in marking the transition from callow civilian to soldier.

But, I wrote, this is a ritual that applies to every trade and profession – one of learning its special vocabulary, knowledge of which distinguishes the practitioner from the outsider. Clarity and precision in the use of words, I asserted, was vital. Sloppy use of vocabulary leads to confusion and muddle.

At the time, I was writing about migration but the sentiment is every bit as appropriate to Brexit. And here we are in the depths of a political crisis where the principal actors don’t even understand the basic vocabulary, or mean the same things when they use the same words. This can do nothing but spread confusion and muddle.

One would not have thought that the politicians – to say nothing of the hacks – could make such a mess of this, but it seems that their capacity to get it wrong is endless.

Yet, for a thing such as a customs union, the concept is remarkably simple. As defined, it is a trade agreement where the parties agree to remove tariffs and quantitative restrictions between themselves, and apply a common external tariff, so that all members apply to same tariffs to third countries.

The customs union, therefore, deals exclusively with tariffs and quantitative restrictions (quotas). It has no impact on regulatory standards and does not in any way relate to customs procedures, of define parameters for customs cooperation, which is an altogether different thing.

That anyone should even have to think of clarifying such issues at this late stage of the Brexit process illustrates just what a dire position we are in. I was writing about this on the blog in October 2016, and even by then the issues should have been settled.

It gets even worse when the customs union is elided with trade policy and the ability to conclude free trade agreements. For instance, it is widely held – for instance, by issue-illiterates such as Liam Halligan that membership of the EU’s customs union is what prevents us from making separate trade deals with third countries.

This, of course, is not the case. The provisions which prevent this relate to Articles 206-207 TFEU, which define the Common Commercial Policy (CCP), and Article 3 which makes it an exclusive EU competence. These Articles, and not the customs union, gives the EU exclusive powers to make trade deals on behalf of members.

In theory, and indeed practice, there is nothing to stop members of a customs union making their trade deals with non-members, where agreements relate to non-tariff matters, and flanking policies – as is the case with Merosur.

There can even be allowances made for separate tariff deals. When a member imports goods at a rate lower than the external tariff, on re-export to a member, the difference between the two is added by the destination country. For made-up goods, rules of origin may apply.

But there are further complications in considering the difference between membership of the EU’s customs union, and a customs union with the EU. Outside the EU, the UK cannot be a member of the customs union, which amongst other things requires 80 percent of tariff income collected by members to be remitted to the EU budget.

We can only become members of a separately negotiated customs union, which would be a distinct agreement between the EU and the UK. How this would be financed would be a matter to be negotiated between the parties. Most likely, each party would bear its own costs.

For the UK, the downside of customs union membership is that it would tie us into the common external tariff, which would restrict our flexibility to make tariff deals with other third countries – depending on the nature of the agreement we had with the EU. This might also have a long-term impact on our foreign policy.

For the most part, though, customs union are an antiquated form of agreement that long-predate the WTO and were primarily used as a precursor to political integration. That was the great attraction for the EEC, which saw it as the first step in the creation of a United States of Europe.

There is, therefore, enormous political symbolism in being members of a customs union with the EU. Turkey and the EU negotiated a customs union which came into force in in 1995, essentially as a pre-accession measure to signal its determination to join the EU.

For the UK, it is an entirely unnecessary measure. By agreeing even a conventional free trade agreement, we can eliminate tariffs, and unilaterally adopting the EU’s WTO schedules – which we have done – has the effect of a customs union without the formality of a treaty.

In all senses, the customs union is a complete red herring, which is what I was writing in The Times in December 2016. Yet, one way or another, the political classes seem obsessed with the concept – even if most don’t know what it means or entails – and have wasted a colossal amount of time and energy in pursuing it.

If we want frictionless trade, of course, we have to look to the Single Market, which is an entirely separate legal entity. And yet, not only do so many politicians fail to understand the concept of the customs union, they readily confuse it with the Single Market – as seems to be the case with Rebecca Long-Bailey.

There is no excuse for this, and the inability of politicians (and, indeed, the media) to master the basics is contemptible. Their failures represent a colossal dereliction of duty and are responsible for much of the situation in which we find ourselves. And yet, to this day, is there any one of them who shows the slightest bit of shame?


If They Lose, They Lose. If They Win, They Lose (2019), by Sean Gabb — SEAN GABB

If They Lose, They Lose. If They Win, They Lose Sean Gabb 6th April 2019 I see no point in writing more about the European Union. If we shout and wave our fists, that may or may not be taken into account. Words are useless. Nothing remains to be said that has not been said.…

via If They Lose, They Lose. If They Win, They Lose (2019), by Sean Gabb — SEAN GABB

Kamala’s Values Cudgel

By ilana mercer

Sen. Kamala Harris talks a lot about “our American values.” Ditto the rest of the female candidates who’ve declared for president in the busy Democratic field. They all lecture us about “values.”

“Our American values are under attack,” Harris has tweeted. “Babies are being ripped from their parents at the border …”

As her own proud “know your values moment,” the Democrat from California pinpoints the U.S. Senate Supreme Court confirmation proceedings inflicted on Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

To manipulate Americans, politicians have always used the values cudgel.

With respect to immigration, the idea is to impress upon gullible Americans that the world has a global Right of Return to the U.S. Fail to accept egalitarian immigration for all into America; and you are flouting the very essence of Americanism. (Or, to use liberal argumentation, you’re Hitler.)

When politicians pule about the importance of preserving “our values,” they mean their values: Barack Obama’s values, Hillary Clinton’s values, Angela Merkel’s values, Chucky Schumer’s values, Jeff Bezos’ values, the late John McMussolini’s values, Lindsey Graham’s values, and Jared and Ivanka’s values (but not Trump’s).

When a politician preaches about “the values that make our country great,” to quote Mrs. Clinton, chances are they mean multiculturalism, pluralism, wide-swung borders, Islam as peace, communities divided by diversity as a net positive, and the Constitution (it mandates all the above, just ask Ruth Bader Ginsburg) as a living, breathing, mutating philosophical malignancy.

For them, “protecting” the abstraction that is “our way of life” trumps the protection of real individual lives. “We must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are,” dissembled Obama in the waning weeks before he was gone. The empty phrase is meant to make the sovereign citizen—you—forget that government’s most important role, if not its only role, is to protect individual life.

In his last few addresses, Obama promised to speak up on “certain issues,” in times when he imagined “our core values may be at stake.” Likewise, in delivering her Control-Alt-Delete speech against the Deplorables, Clinton had asserted that “our country is great because we’re good. … Donald Trump disregards the values that make our country great.” The two’s groupthink, notwithstanding, only individuals can be virtuous, not collectives.

Self-government, and not imposed government, implies that society, and not The State, is to develop value systems. The State’s role is to protect citizens as they go about their business peacefully, living in accordance with their peaceful values.

When you hear an appeal to “permanent values”—”the values that make our country great,” to quote Clinton and the current crop of Democratic candidates—know you are dealing with world-class crooks. These crooks want to swindle you out of the freedom to think and believe as you wish. For in the classical conservative and libertarian traditions, values are private things, to be left to civil society—the individual, family and church—to practice and police.

The American government is charged purely with upholding the law, no more. Why so? Because government has police and military powers with which to enforce its “values.” A free people dare not entrust such an omnipotent entity with policing values, at home or abroad, for values enforced are dogma.

When incontestable majorities call on government to curb Islamic and other in-migration because this imperils American lives, President Trump’s unswerving opponents (within his party and without) and their media mafia—will invariably intone, “That’s not who we are.”

When you hear that manipulative mantra, tell them to zip it up; mind their own business, and stick to their constitutional mandate to protect the people, not police their minds.

Remember that through an appeal to values, the State aggrandizes itself.

A limited government, serving an ostensibly free people, must thus never enforce values. It follows that, because our form of government is incompatible with the enforcement of values, the American People can’t and mustn’t admit into their midst civilizations whose values are inimical to the survival of their own.



Ilana Mercer has been writing a weekly, paleolibertarian column since 1999. She is the author of “Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America From Post-Apartheid South Africa (2011) & “The Trump Revolution: The Donald’s Creative Destruction Deconstructed (June, 2016). She’s on Twitter, Facebook, Gab & YouTube

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