What form Britain’s future relations with the EU should take has dominated political debate for at least the last 18 months. I can think of no other topic that bears comparison.
In spite of that, it appears that senior politicians and legacy media journalists have learned almost nothing about the topic at hand.
The most striking recent case in point was Jeremy Corbyn’s appearance on Peston on Sunday.
Watching the segment back, what is immediately apparent is that neither man has even a basic understanding of the terminology they are using. For his part, Peston refers repeatedly to the idea of “remaining in the customs union”, which, any fule must know, is not possible. Leaving aside whether such a course of action is desirable (it isn’t), the EU customs union is defined in the EU treaties and is therefore only applicable to signatories of the EU treaties, i.e. EU Member States.
To that end, Corbyn begins his peroration with an apparently mild corrective to Peston’s daft question, affirming that, in his view, “There will have to be a customs union with the European Union”. This is not a point of view I share, but I admit to being somewhat heartened by Corbyn (apparently) correctly distinguishing between the EU customs union and a bilateral agreement to establish a customs union between the EU and the UK, once the UK has established itself as a distinct customs entity. That mild optimism did not last long.
Corbyn continued: “Because if you’re in a trading relationship then clearly you can’t at the same time be putting tariffs on goods inside the European Union”. That is incoherent babble. I could attempt to parse it, but there isn’t any point. Corbyn can’t be arsed to know what he’s talking about, so there is no reason I should attempt to interpret on his behalf.
The kind of fine-grained textual analysis that accompanies practically every utterance of political leaders is only worthwhile if you’re dealing with people who understand subtlety and nuance. To that end, the feline Michel Barnier often slants his commentary on the negotiations in a way that is disfavourable to the UK (as one might expect), yet I still read about how he is ‘playing with a straight bat’.
One might expect Peston to press Corbyn to clarify his statement. “Seeing as the UK is not going to be in the EU, the UK is not going to be putting tariffs on goods inside the European Union, so what on Earth are you talking about you doddery old bat?” Something along those lines.
Instead, Peston switches tack entirely and introduces the “idea of not having border checks”, which has little to do with the EU customs union or even a customs union. The largest contributor to the elimination of customs border checks between EU Member States and EFTA/EEA participants was the introduction of ‘behind the border’ checks as part of the creation of the Single Market.
Why the Single Market and customs union should be so frequently confused, conflated and mistaken for one another is frankly beyond me. Those who are entrusted to take decisions on behalf of the rest of us—as part of our ‘representative democracy’—appear to be among the most ignorant people in the country when it comes to matters one might presume would occupy them night and day. There are only so many ways in which I can express exasperation but unmercifully Corbyn and Peston were not yet finished.
“I think there also needs to be a look at some aspects of the current customs union and the way in which it is tariff heavy against quite a lot of very poor countries and is in some cases protectionist against developing countries”, affirmed Corbyn, drifting ever deeper into la-la land. The EU customs union is—shock—a matter for the EU.
Not content to let Corbyn’s idiocy go unchallenged, Peston then said something about how remaining in the customs union (still not possible) would preclude the UK negotiating bilateral trade deals with the rest of world, which, with tiresome inevitability, is wrong.
So, there we have it, the leader of the opposition and the lead journalist on one of Britain’s leading Sunday news programmes talking total toilet about the most important political issue facing the country. This is not a failure to understand arcane technicalities, these are the basics, and Britain’s political class, even after 18 months, has apparently failed to grasp any of them.
I’m not sure how it is possible to be this out of touch.