Richard North, 26/02/2018  
 


We had Keir Starmer on the Andrew Marr show yesterday, firming up on the Labour Party's position on a customs union. All we have to do is wait for Corbyn's speech today and it will be locked in as party policy.

That said, we have to confront the idea that the man (Starmer) is either terminally stupid, or he believes us all to be, so much so that we will accept without complaint his assertion that a customs union will avoid a hard border in Ireland.

Surely to God by now, we should have politicians who are sufficiently knowledgeable about the basics? Surely they must know that a customs union will have no effect on freeing up trade on the Irish border once we leave the EU (and end the transition period). To ensure free movement of goods (and some services) we must retain, via the EEA, participation in the Single Market.

Needless to say, despite the rank stupidity of the assertion, the idle Marr let it pass without challenge. Thus he misses, as he so often does, the key point and lets another politician off the hook. Only the BBC – apart from the rest of the media – could employ someone so utterly useless.

On the same day, though, we also had Hilary Benn, chair of the Brexit Committee tweeting about Efta, giving the firm impression that believes this to be a customs union. Thus, amongst the MPs and media, we have the building evidence that we are caught in the grip of an epidemic of stupidity.

Trying to assess why many ostensibly intelligent people manage to get it so wrong, so consistently, has been a never-ending labour on this blog and we're probably no closer to an answer than we've ever been.

But one there is one thing that does begin to stand out. These politicians and their media handmaidens don't know the basics because they don't need to know. The details are of no interest to them as they are playing (and reporting) an entirely different game.

Mr Starmer, Mr Benn, Mr Marr, Mr Corbyn and all the rest are really only interested in party politics, domestic politics. And here, in the notion of a customs union is the "clear blue water" that the pundits so much treasure and the parties squabble over.

Mrs May has pinned her policy on leaving the customs union so Mr Corbyn's party has settled on supporting a customs union. One might suppose that if the Conservatives took a different view, whatever it was, Labour would oppose that, just for the sake of it.

As it stands, in true party political style, David Davis accuses Mr Corbyn of acting like a "snake oil" salesman, making a move that "would shackle Britain to Brussels in a flagrant betrayal of Labour’s Election manifesto a year ago".

From the Labour side, with statesman-like dignity, Frank Field declared that staying in an EU customs union after the end of a transition phase in 2020 would "rat on the people's decision to leave".

Where these childish games falls apart though is that there are substantive issues at state, and the arguments are not being played out on a national stage. There are players who aren't in the least interested in UK domestic politics. The final arbiters are in Brussels and they won't allow the outcome to be fudged. between the parties as they so often are when just UK interests are at stake.

The simple truth is that Labour has no more got a solution to the Irish border question than have Mrs May's Conservatives. The warring parties have a bone to fight over, but the issue lies unresolved.

But, while they play their sterile game, Brussels is stirring and, according to the Financial Times, they are cooking up something that none of our idle politicians are going to like.

What this amounts to in the jargon of the game is that the Commission plans to "operationalise" the agreement on Ireland brokered in December and published in the Joint Report. This will created a legal structure which will form part of the final withdrawal agreement.

It was in this that the parties stated that the United Kingdom remained committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to "its guarantee of avoiding a hard border". But, the following paragraph (ironically, paragraph 50) made execution of that promise effectively impossible by refusing to allow any new regulatory barriers between the UK mainland and Northern Ireland.

This was the crunch. Either the UK as a whole (including Northern Ireland) stuck to the Single Market or Northern Ireland and the Republic remained and the border moved to the Irish Sea. Practically speaking, there are no other alternatives.

Conscious of this, Commission officials have come up with the only solution possible, elegant enough in its own terms. They have simply omitted from the new draft, which we will see on Wednesday, any reference to creating new regulatory barriers across the Irish Sea.

This scenario, according to the FT, would keep Northern Ireland entirely within the grip of Brussels and, to the likely discomfort of the DUP, offers no other options. This puts the DUP on the line and, by inference, puts Mrs May's Conservatives on notice.

And, from current performance, the DUP is not going to give up easily. Nigel Dodds, the DUP's Westminster leader, on Sunday, redefined his party's requirements, stating that he wanted an open border with the Irish Republic "but we're also very clear that there can be no border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom economically or politically". He added: "I think in terms of a customs union it is very clear... that you do not require membership of the customs union to preserve a frictionless border in Ireland".

For all the party political posturing, therefore, neither Labour nor the Conservatives are any further forward. But, while they play their games, they are being quietly but nonetheless dramatically undermined. They are about to have imposed on them a situation which they can neither tolerate nor resolve, but have nothing to put in its place.

Particularly, this makes today's speech by Mr Corbyn a complete irrelevance and, by the time Mrs May gets to deliver hers on Friday, it will have already have been consigned to history. Devoid of any workable ideas on Northern Ireland, and chained to her absurd "ambitious managed divergence", she will be speaking into a political vacuum.

In the meantime, the FT quotes a UK government official. "It is no surprise that the EU will continue to produce documents that push their negotiating position", he says. "However it is important they [the Commission] accurately reflect the [December deal] and include the full scope of the agreement, rather than simply the bits which best suit one side".

This is countered by an EU negotiator who says, "Next week is an important moment. We can't just listen to the grumbling, if we are to push the negotiation forward it is important to put a text on the table". He adds: "It is dangerous, but it is the only way. Otherwise it will grind to a halt. We need to kick-start the negotiations".

That might suggest that there is room for manoeuvre but the reality is that there is precious little the Commission can concede. Throughout the entire negotiations, we have seen the UK government cede the initiative time and again, only for the EU negotiators to pick up the pieces. And with Mrs May and her cabinet so short of ideas, this is happening yet again.

But, for all that, the Conservatives will be the last to recognise their plight. In addition to Kier Starmer, Marr also interviewed Liam Fox who displayed an extraordinary insouciance. He sees the EU as being "frightened" of a "less regulated Britain", arguing that "we can diverge as much we like".

These people simply are not on the same planet as the rest of us. Trapped in their Westminster bubbles, they haven't the faintest idea of how the rest of the nation sees them, much less the rest of the world, and are totally incapable of relating to anything that approaches reality.

Sadly, we have to put up with this time-wasting sham of party-political conflicts, before the grown-ups intervene to decide what is going to happen.






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