Jeremy Corbyn’s support for ‘a customs union’ is a temporary political ploy

Jeremy Corbyn’s support for ‘a customs union’ is a temporary political ploy

The EU’s attitude to its member states can best be summed up by the last two lines of The Eagles’ 1977 hit song, Hotel California: “You can check out any time you like/ but you can never leave”. Hence its latest ‘draft treaty’ for Brexit, a document designed to intimidate on one hand and if unsuccessful, provoke a walk-out by the UK. Theresa May refused to be intimidated or provoked, making that reasoned and reasonable speech at the Mansion House outlining the case for a mutually beneficial trade deal with the EU.

Unable to put the same pressure on the UK, as it did on Greece, the EU establishment is using divided Ireland and a perceived threat of violence if a hard borderĀ  was to return, to effectively keep the UK in the EU. I believe Northern Ireland to be an anachronism, a consequence of the long history of colonialism of that island, an anachronism with which we have to live – but the Good Friday Agreement provides the framework to do that. On the one hand, the EU pays lip service to honouring that agreement while on the other proposes that Northern Ireland remain in the Customs Union, thus creating a border between it and the rest of the UK, something that will be seen by at least two of the original signatories as a breach of the agreement.

In politics as in a warfare, positions are sometimes taken that are unviable and undesirable in order to consolidate the grounds already captured. So it is with David Davis’s famous claim of the UK enjoying the “exact same benefits” when we leave the Single Market – all the benefits and none of the obligations; and now too with Jeremy Corbyn’s “a customs union” that will allow us to have a say in trade deals the EU negotiates and at the same time trade freely with other nations while we provide state aid to industry as and when we wish (as set out in this speech).

The intention of Davis and Corbyn was to consolidate the policy of leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union. In the case of Corbyn, it brought immediate results: unlike last September’s Labour Party conference, where a vote on a motion to support staying in the Single Market was avoided, six months on and a similar motion was faced head-on at the Scottish Labour Party conference last weekend and was decisively defeated.

A customs union is both undesirable and unattainable. Undesirable because it would throw out of the window Labour’s plans for the economy, including such vital things as state aid to industry, let alone negotiating our own trade deals to meet our own national interest; and unattainable because such “a customs union” would be unacceptable to the EU. Soon “a custom union” will be laid to rest by the Labour Party in the same way that “exact same benefits” was abandoned by Theresa May in her Mansion House speech.

Corbyn went further and turned the argument of those like the TUC who continue to call for the UK to stay in the Single Market on the basis that it is best for jobs and workers’ rights by stating the obvious: jobs and rights can only be secure outside the Single Market and the Customs Union when we are in charge and free to take the actions necessary.

The Brexit debate has moved full circle and we are back to where we started with sovereignty taking centre stage – something the hard-wired Remainers seem unable to comprehend. They continue to hope that some bad outcomes of leaving (and there will undoubtedly be a few) will persuade people to recant and plead with the EU to take us back or at least call for a second referendum. If there is anything absolute, it is a nation’s sovereignty; it is equivalent to the right to strike for trade unionists; it is not open to be sold, no matter what the price is; it is indivisible and like virginity: it cannot be shared or pooled.

Labour and the Tories now occupy the same fundamental territory on Brexit: respect the result of the referendum, “leaving the EU; not leaving Europe”, end freedom of movement, out of the Single Market, out of the Customs Union, no second referendum and a return to parliamentary sovereignty. The fear by some and the hope of others that Corbyn’s “a customs union” is intended to lead to a coalescence with hardline Tory Remainers to defeat the Government and scupper its plans for a clean Brexit are unfounded.

Corbyn’s proposal for “a customs union” is a vice designed to unhinge the Chuka Umunnas of this world and it has done just that. If Labour was to be tempted along the route of embarrassing the Government in the middle of the most complex and time-limited negotiations any government has had to conduct, it would be severely punished by the electorate.