EU Referendum

Brexit: confusion is all we get


Selective quoting is a formidable weapon of disinformation, and especially so in the hands of the idiot Andrew Marr who deployed it to maximum effect in his interview yesterday with Home Secretary Amber Rudd.

Picking up on the misplaced discussion about the UK's continued membership of the EU's customs union, Marr sought to lend gravitas to his inquisition by quoting from Mrs May's Lancaster House speech. He took small a section purporting to represent the prime minister's views, asking if it was still policy. This was the bit he used:
Whether that means we must reach a completely new customs agreement, become an associate member of the customs union in some way, or remain a signatory to some elements of it, I hold no preconceived opinion. I have an open mind on how we do it.
Rudd, I suppose, responded in a predictable fashion, pointing out that Mrs May "has an open mind on it". She went on to say that "we" had published a document last year saying how we would do it, and we proposed either a customs arrangement or a customs partnership. Those are both alternatives that we could look at.

This, of course, was not enough for the idiot savant, who asserted that the quoted passage meant: "she's talking there about the possibility of a customs union of some kind with the rest of the EU".

But actually, she wasn't – something that is evident from a more generous exerpt. She says:
I know my emphasis on striking trade agreements with countries outside Europe has led to questions about whether Britain seeks to remain a member of the EU’s Customs Union. And it is true that full Customs Union membership prevents us from negotiating our own comprehensive trade deals.

Now, I want Britain to be able to negotiate its own trade agreements. But I also want tariff-free trade with Europe and cross-border trade there to be as frictionless as possible.

That means I do not want Britain to be part of the Common Commercial Policy and I do not want us to be bound by the Common External Tariff. These are the elements of the Customs Union that prevent us from striking our own comprehensive trade agreements with other countries. But I do want us to have a customs agreement with the EU.

Whether that means we must reach a completely new customs agreement, become an associate member of the Customs Union in some way, or remain a signatory to some elements of it, I hold no preconceived position. I have an open mind on how we do it. It is not the means that matter, but the ends.
In the penultimate paragraph of this extract, we have untypical clarity – untypical for Mrs May, who is speaking of a customs agreement rather than a customs union.

With both phrases containing the word "customs" though, one can quite appreciate the difficulty a BBC hack might have in telling the difference. On the other hand, those who have not undergone the compulsory media lobotomy will readily understand that these things are not the same.

That, however, does not stop Mrs May confusing the issue in the final quoted paragraph where she talks about becoming "an associate member of the Customs Union". But at least she also refers to reaching "a completely new customs agreement". This is the actual mechanism that we need to adopt, an agreement on customs cooperation rather than a customs union.

The trouble is, though, that in this interview, Marr's ignorance meets Rudd's stupidity. Rudd tells the BBC hack that "we do not want to have tariffs at the border", so – she says, "that is a form of customs agreement, arrangement, partnership". And to Marr, that means only one thing: "To get that you have to have some kind of customs union", he says.

Even then, Rudd comes back suggesting that we are "likely to have something within the customs framework", saying that she didn't want "to be drawn into this whole 'a' or 'the' customs union". And thus did we descend into darkness, with Marr countering: "It sounds like, if I may say so, you are so intimidated by the other side of the argument you won't actually say the words 'customs union'".

So we leave another encounter with the London media, adding to the confusion and misinformation. Watching the BBC (and especially the Marr show) means never having to be informed, and never getting anything that will inform.

Predictably, the absence of clarity has had its political consequences, with "senior Brexiteers" warning that anti-EU Tory backbenchers could launch "a bid to topple Mrs May". This is supposedly if she joins "pro-EU Cabinet ministers" including Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, and Amber Rudd, in advocating an ongoing customs union.

This has triggered an intervention by a "Downing Street source", who has moved to reassure said Tory Brexiteers that the prime minister is committed to taking Britain out of the EU customs union. The source said: "To put this to rest, we are categorically leaving the customs union", adding: "We must be free to sign trade deals with the rest of the it is not our policy stay in the Customs Union. It is not our policy to stay in a customs union".

Thus has an entirely unnecessary battle dominated the Brexit debate – a fight over something we don't want and don't need. Had the government an ounce of wit, ministers would have been able to point to the fatuity of those who have argued that we needed to stay in the (or "a") customs union.

The problem for Mrs May, though, is that she has already poisoned the well by ruling out continued participation in the Single Market. But, to make the case that the customs union is irrelevant, she must have something to take its place. This is especially the case as the customs union has been afforded near magical properties which seem to make it uncannily similar to the Single Market.

It would help if anyone in the current government was able to display a clear (or any) understanding of what the Single Market involved, and how it differed from the customs union. But in common with BBC hacks (and the media in general), such nuances are totally beyond their capabilities. Despite more than 25 years of trading in the Single Market, neither politicians nor media seem to have the first idea of what it is.

Worse still, the only alternative to a customs union was set out in the August 2017 paper on future customs arrangements. This offered either a "highly streamlined customs arrangement" or a "new customs partnership with the EU", neither of which are acceptable to the EU. Despite that, they are still being touted as a solution.

With that, it is hardly surprising that Amber Rudd sold the pass. We have a situation where the government has to deny that it will keep us in the customs union (a denial it must sustain), despite having no credible replacement which will keep goods (and services) flowing.

An astute journalist – with a working knowledge of the EU and the Brexit process – would easily be able to identify this confusion of aims, and shred the government's position. Sadly, this country's media doesn't do "astute". Forty-five years of ignoring the EU and its predecessors has left the corporate body brain dead, lacking an institutional memory or any knowledge of how the system works. We are left, therefore, struggling with the fog of ignorance that has been perpetrated by the likes of Mr Marr.

And yet, says Bernard Jenkin, "Theresa May will be rewarded for her continuing consistency and determination". He adds: "Her MPs will back her, because we are overwhelmingly at one with the majority of the British people who now want a clean Brexit and end to the present uncertainty. It is time for her ministers to back her too and to end the confusion they are fomenting in Government".

Despite that, and whatever Jenkin might say, confusion is all we're going to get.