Jeremy Corbyn has signalled his support for Britain's ongoing membership of the Customs Union after it has left the EU. Last month Mick Brooks wrote powerfully for Briefing making the case in favour of Jeremy's position. This is an entirely honourable stance for socialists to adopt – whatever our position about the EU, we have to be clear that this is a question of tactics, not of principles. For us the ultimate division is not that between Britain and the EU, but that between workers and those who own and control wealth. The question is how the interests of workers play out in the debate about the EU.
Here things are not straightforward, particularly regarding the Customs Union. There can be no question of a future Labour government erecting large scale tariff barriers against the EU, Britain's single largest export market. There is, after all, no such thing as socialism in one country. Remaining in the Customs Union would certainly be one way, if not the only way, of ensuring that products can move freely between Britain and the rest of Europe. Mick's article spelled out clearly the reasons why this is important. In spite of this, I do think there are good reasons to question support for Customs Union membership.
The global impact of the Customs Union is far from positive. In essence it pools the purchasing power of 700 million of the world's richest consumers in a way that is detrimental to the global south. For one concrete example, look at the stalled negotiations around the EU-India Free Trade Agreement. Here the immediate presenting issue is the EU's insistence that India remove tariffs on car and alcohol imports. But further back problems were caused by the issue of Indian generic pharmaceutical products, which have lowered the price of medicines, but at cost to European and American based pharmaceutical companies. The EU's wish to ban these generics brought talks to a halt. Ultimately, of course, the problem here is not the details of trade deals but global capitalism, and the inequality it breeds. However it is reasonable to ask whether socialists ought to support Britain's membership of an EU trade block which acts as a kind of gang against poorer countries.
Leftist supporters of the Customs Union often point to the fact that it is distinct from the Single Market. The latter is much more problematic in terms of the constraints it places on member states. Some of these would present serious problems for a future radical Labour government wanting to reverse privatisation and deregulation. It is true that the Customs Union doesn't present the same kind of problems directly. The difficulty is, though, that it may be difficult in practice to negotiate ongoing membership of the Customs Union without also staying in the Single Market, or at least remaining subject to many of its rules. Here it's worth looking at the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with Ukraine, in force since 2016, which imposes enforceable regulations in areas including public procurement.
Finally, there's Ireland. Supporters of the UK's membership of the Customs Union have argued that the alternative would be a hard border in Ireland. The framing of this debate is not one that anybody on the left ought to accept. It takes the ongoing partition of Ireland for granted, and in doing do it denies the agency and potential impact of left-wing and republican voices in the north of Ireland. This is too pessimistic. The new politics around the UK's EU membership provides the opportunity to re-open the debate about partition in Ireland, in a context where the grip of unionism on younger protestants is weakening. Immediately after the EU referendum result was announced, Sinn Fein called for a border poll. That was the right response. The left in Britain ought not to allow a more timid approach to Ireland to dictate our attitude towards the Customs Union.