Obama wins the Nobel Peace Prize. Is this a joke?

I am still rubbing my eyes in disbelief - UPDATED

So what are the odds? The week I write a cover story for the New Statesman, arguing that President Obama has turned into "Barack W Bush" and is emulating his predecessor's policies on human rights, civil liberties, Afghanistan and a host of other issues, the bloody Norwegians go and give him a Nobel Peace Prize. You couldn't make it up.

Over the past couple of years, the cult of Obama has elevated him to a godlike, saint-like, superhuman position in the global political landscape. He is a celebrity, he is an icon, he is a political phenomenon. And just when you thought his international sheen was rubbing off, with his failure to win the 2016 Olympics for his adopted city of Chicago, he goes and wins the world's most prestigious civil liberties award. Obamaniacs, rejoice!

So why has he got the prize? Here is the flaw in the Norwegians' groupthink, as reported by the BBC:

Asked why the prize had been awarded to Mr Obama less than a year after he took office, Nobel committee head Thorbjørn Jagland said: "It was because we would like to support what he is trying to achieve".

"It is a clear signal that we want to advocate the same as he has done," he said.

So the Nobel guys are giving him an award for peace before he has actually achieved peace -- specifically, they say, in the field of global nuclear disarmament and the Obama resolution at the UN last month -- which, of course, they have a bad track record of doing. Remember when they awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres in 1994? Perhaps the news hasn't reached Oslo yet but, 15 years on, the Holy Land remains mired in bloodshed, hatred and conflict, with no Palestinian state in sight.

And then, of course, there's Henry Kissinger. His receipt of the prize in 1973, in the wake of his war crimes against Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, prompted Tom Lehrer to remark: "Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Prize."

I'm not sure what the satirists will say this time round, but I eagerly await Jon Stewart's take on The Daily Show on More 4 next week . . .

UPDATE I (10 December): So Obama has accepted his prize this afternoon, in Oslo. Since I last blogged on Barack and the Nobel [above], the US president has decided to heed the advice of his generals and send 30,000 extra troops to fight and die in the valleys and mountains of the Hindu Kush. The Times headline says it all: "Barack Obama accepts Nobel Peace Prize with stern defence of war". How absurd. And depressing. The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner had to start his speech by acknowledging the controversy over the choice of a wartime president for the prize. When Henry Kissinger was awarded the prize in 1973, Tom Lehrer remarked: "It was at that moment that satire died...There was nothing more to say after that." Touché.

UPDATE II (10 December): Simon Reid-Henry has blogged from Oslo for the NS here.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.