Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.
Theresa May’s call for national unity will go unanswered. Labour has no interest in helping her at this stage. Jeremy Corbyn’s sole aim throughout has been to maximise the sense of chaos. He believes that, when things go wrong, sitting governments (however unfairly) get the blame. He has therefore done everything in his power to prolong the uncertainty, repeatedly whipping, for example, against a Withdrawal Agreement every dot and comma of which Labour accepts as a prelude to a final deal. You have to admire the chutzpah: having taken every opportunity to create gridlock at Westminster, Labour now turns around and says: “Look! What a mess! Time for a change!”
So we can dismiss the idea of the two parties agreeing a Brexit strategy. Asking for Labour’s co-operation might give the Prime Minister a tiny tactical boost, exposing Jezza’s hypocrisy. But it is unlikely to result in a solution.
Which brings us back to Parliament and its fumbling attempts to find a majority. “Tell us what you want, Britain!” say EU leaders. “Make up your minds! We know what you’re against, but what are you for?”
Actually, the Commons has said what it is for. The one motion it has passed with a majority is the so-called Brady Amendment. Britain is prepared to swallow all the other nasties in the Withdrawal Agreement – the lopsided arbitration mechanism, the continuing role for the ECJ, the £39 billion which no-one actually believes we owe – provided the backstop is replaced with something other than a scheme for permanent customs union.
It is worth stressing that MPs wanted the backstop replaced rather than removed. The United Kingdom is ready to take any reasonable steps to avoid a hard border in Ireland. It has said from the start that it will raise no physical infrastructure on its side of the line, and is happy to enshrine that commitment in a binding treaty. It will work with Dublin and Brussels on helping them to avoid infrastructure on their side. During his last attempt to negotiate changes, for example, Geoffrey Cox reportedly offered to accept a “pared-down” backstop, which would include only those things truly necessary to avoid border checks – common standards on animal health and the like.
The EU, of course, refused to make any such concessions. In its intransigence, it inadvertently revealed that it was not primarily interested in avoiding an Irish border. Rather it aimed – and aims – to keep Britain in a customs union, thereby neutralising what it wrongly sees as the “threat” of a more competitive neighbour. (Free-marketeers know that having a competitive neighbour is no threat. As David Hume put it: “The increase in riches and commerce in any one nation, instead of hurting, commonly promotes the riches and commerce of all its neighbours.”)
Eurocrats can hardly be blamed for wanting to take full commercial control of the world’s fifth-largest economy, and can’t believe their luck at Parliament’s evident readiness to let them. If there were any MPs before the 2016 referendum who argued that we should leave the EU but stay in the customs union, they kept very quiet. That option was seen by those who took an interest as manifestly the worst of all worlds.
If you want to understand quite how bad the customs union would be for a non-member, read Greg Hands – a former Remainer and a former trade minister. Surely no MP could digest Greg’s argument and still, in good conscience, back this nonsense. But, sadly, few MPs will take the time. Even 30 months on, most of them seem not to understand what the customs union is and – more culpably – show no interest in learning.
The left-wing case against the customs union – that it hurts developing countries and penalises the poorest people in Britain by pushing up the price of food, clothing and footwear – is, if anything, even stronger than the free-market one. Yet, incredibly, Labour MPs have now stumbled into the bizarre position of wanting to junk the good bits of EU membership while hanging onto the bad bits. Why? Perhaps because the Customs Union sounds vaguely like some sort of compromise; perhaps because they can see that Eurosceptics hate it; perhaps because they dislike the word “market” but like the word “union”. Whatever the explanation, the EU is exploiting their stupidity for all it’s worth, repeatedly saying that it would be happy to alter its position if only Britain would agree to cede its trade policy to Brussels in perpetuity.
Remember, Brussels refused to amend the backstop, not because it was trying to prevent a hard border in Ireland – there are better ways to do that – but because it wanted to reduce Britain’s options to two: acceptance of a customs union or revocation of Article 50. Since it saw both options as congenial, it had no incentive to budge. Incredibly, it may now get its way.
Sulkily, gormlessly, ignorantly, Parliament is shuffling towards a deal worse than either remaining or leaving. We shall lose our veto in Brussels, but allow Eurocrats to set our technical standards and control our trade deals with non-EU states. This idiocy is being pursued for the most sordid of reasons. Some MPs want to stay as close to Brussels as possible on principle, even in areas where there is no conceivable argument for doing so. Some want to stick the other side in the eye. Some simply want the whole business to end, and will vote for a dreadful deal out of ennui.
Listen to the defenders of the Customs Union when they talk. They never make any kind of principled case for it. They can’t. Instead, they talk about “standing up to the ERG” or “finding a middle way”. Are we really going to end up in this worst-of-all-worlds because our MPs can’t be bothered to read about what they’re planning to vote for? It looks horribly likely.