It’s time to stop playing word games with Brexit – the unionist parties need to tell us what they want

Picture by Jonathan Rolande (CC BY 2.0)

Heledd Brooks-Jones, Policy Adviser for Plaid Cymru’s Westminster team

At first, the Tories insisted that “Brexit means Brexit”.

Then the Prime Minister wanted a “deep and special relationship with the EU”, “the best possible deal for Britain”, “a bespoke deal”.

The UK Government was not alone in its use of empty platitudes. Labour wanted a “Brexit that puts working people first”.

The Shadow Brexit Secretary maintained that “how” Brexit is delivered is “secondary to the outcome”.

Then there was that time we would all rather forget when a minefield of jargon was being used by the UK Government to bamboozle the DUP and the EU into agreeing a position on the Irish border.

They wanted regulatory alignment, equivalence, convergence and divergence, all at the same time.

The fudge worked fine before Christmas. But with the EU’s draft withdrawal agreement out yesterday, that quick fix solution is unravelling at quite a pace. Alas, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

We are left with the Tories who want a ‘customs arrangement’ while, as of Monday, Labour wants a ‘customs union’.

Both totally different, credible policy positions. So they say. Both are in fact cleverly designed to be as constructively ambiguous as possible.

The biggest political and constitutional event of our lifetime has been reduced to semantics by the two main unionist parties.

Of course, what Labour won’t tell you is that there is a world of difference between negotiating a bilateral customs union with the EU and being in the EU Customs Union.

Neither will they tell you that their customs union is more or less a bespoke customs arrangement, in which they would want to, let’s say, “cherry-pick” the benefits.

Déjà vu? You get my drift. I’m sure Michel Barnier would welcome that position with open arms.

This is where the semantics of Brexit truly do matter. The difference is a subtle one, but by using the indefinite article when describing its customs union, the Labour party is leaving the position open to interpretation.

Fear

By straddling the Brexit fence, they are facilitating an ideologically driven departure from the EU which will result in unnecessary barriers to trade.

And even if this new customs policy is one step on their long drawn out journey towards adopting a softer Brexit position, time is running out.

Plaid Cymru has been unequivocal and consistent in its support for continued membership of the (definite article) EU Customs Union and Single Market from day one.

Being a member of the Customs Union as it stands right at this very moment allows the UK to trade freely in all goods across Europe. Crucially, membership of the Customs Union gives the UK access to over 50 countries outside the EU.

The ‘third countries’ with whom we have free trade agreements as a product of our membership of the EU Customs Union, account for approximately £140 billion of UK trade.

The EU’s Customs Union is made up of EU Member States, and – importantly – includes some territories which aren’t in the European Union – the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.

In a customs union, things are very different. We will not be able to automatically secure additional market access via EU free trade agreements with third countries.

Let’s use Turkey as an example – the only major country outside the EU to be in a Customs Union with it. Turkey is not able to automatically secure additional market access via EU free trade agreements with third countries, but these third countries have complete access to Turkey’s market.

We are leaving the EU in thirteen months’ time. It’s time to stop playing word games. With the British Government’s self-imposed deadline fast approaching, the unionist parties must do much better.

The Prime Minister will be delivering a speech tomorrow in which she is expected to flesh out the detail. Judging by past form, I fear that will not be the case.


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Richard Perkins
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Richard Perkins

A correct exposition of the Government’s and Labour’s unclear,weasel worded positions. Staying in the custom union and the single market is better, as Plaid has always maintained. But remaining in the European Union tout court is even better for Wales and almost everybody in the United Kingdom. I believe this is the position of the Scottish Nationalist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party and quite probably the majority of Members of British Parliament. There is plenty wrong with the European Union but by the time we have gone though a deathly withdrawal the demographics will almost certainly be in favour of… Read more »

Wrexhamian
Guest
Wrexhamian

Yes, but this was a referendum, which is a kind of single-issue general election, like the independence referenda in Wales and Scotland. Within the terms of such a vote, MPs are delegates, not representatives. Their job is to get the UK out of there with minimal punishment by the EU. There is nothing to stop a Welsh Government from holding its own referendum on re-joining the EU. A ‘Yes’ vote would force the issue of independence to the surface. ‘Independence within the EU’ would probably be the lesser of two evils in comparison with the current EnglandandWales set-up, notwithstanding that… Read more »

Robert Williams
Guest
Robert Williams

Richard Perkins states the position with admirable clarity. It remains only to add that when the UK goes back, tail between legs, to seek readmission the price will certainly include loss of Mrs Thatcher’s famous rebate, and probably acceptance of the Euro and Schengen membership.

Simon
Guest
Simon

I agree that that the UK government is making a mess of Brexit and betraying the people. Article 50 should have been triggered within 24 hours of the referendum result – as promised by the PM. There is no negotiating with the anti-democratic & anti-national nightmare known as the EU. It is a monstrosity. The UK would be far better of outside the EU – especially the Customs Union and Single Market. What part of ‘independence’ and ‘democratic sovereignty ‘don’t you political elites understand? No part of it apparently. As for Plaid Cymru, it should be now known as the… Read more »

sibrydionmawr
Guest

Where is your evidence that the Wales would be better off outside the EU? Brexit is a mess, mainly because the referendum result was taken to be a mandate for a pig in a poke. As for the EU being anti-democratic and anti national, again, where is your evidence? We all have a vote for the EU Parliament, and our country also has right of veto on any legislation. It seems to me that the UK is far less democratic, in that we have the House of Lords, entirely unelected, and so completely undemocratic. Sure, there is a hell of… Read more »

Graham John Hathaway
Guest
Graham John Hathaway

Ive woken up, turned on the wifi and read Sibrydionmawr’s comments but thought I had written them. Cant a Cant. Nothing like a good old taste of what democracy is, or is not first up in the morning. Added to this was Professor Roger Awan-Scully’s Blog on up dated survey on a scale of positive to negative attitudes to Brexit. As the withering voices of pro Brexit get less, but more ‘shouty’ of nonsense, the reality is palpable. The biggest gaff of gaffs to spike the prosperity of these isles since the World wars. And it’s not over yet. As… Read more »

Jonathan Edwards Sir Benfro (+North Carolina)
Guest
Jonathan Edwards Sir Benfro (+North Carolina)

Quickfire 1. “Plaid Cymru has been unequivocal and consistent in its support for continued membership of the (definite article) EU Customs Union and Single Market from day one.” Careful, this is not the same as saying Plaid has always favoured staying in the EU. I have waited carefully for Plaid to say this but it hasn’t. Too timid, see. Almost as afraid of the Brexit voters as Labour. 2. But thanks to Heledd BJ for writing with spirit and clarity. Pity her “superiors” seem unable to. 3. Schengen and the Euro are not bad things. Me I like untrammelled freedom… Read more »