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.


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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