Guantanamo transfers: an empty gesture?

The transfer of 70 detainees to Illinois simply passes on the problem

So, what are we to make of the Obama administration's decision to transfer about 70 of the remaining 250 or so Guantanamo detainees to the US mainland?

The White House yesterday released a memorandum directing the federal government to purchase the prison, in order to "facilitate the closure" of detention facilities at the Guantanamo Bay naval base by securing the transfer of roughly 70 inmates (according to Senator Dick Durbin, D-Illinois) to the correctional centre in the town of Thomson, Carroll County, Illinois.

The decision to move the detainees to the facility at Thomson (population 559) is an interesting choice, on all sorts of levels.

In part, Barack Obama is doubtless being a touch wily and seeking to stall the barrage of criticism he will be in for, come 22 January and the passing of the year in which he said that he would have Guantanamo closed. It will also provide a good number of jobs -- some sources say up to 2,000 -- and $1bn of federal funding in an area feeling the economic downturn acutely.

But he will take considerable flak from the Republicans, some of whom are already talking of the "risks" the move poses to the American public. In an expensive pre-emptive pandering to such cynically stoked fears, the prison -- which already features cells built of precast, reinforced cement, will now be retrofitted to exceed even "super-max" security standards, according to a letter sent to the governor of Illinois, Pat Quinn, by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But this is hardly going to quell Republican concerns that Guantanamo detainees just shouldn't be in America, period.

A more serious question the Republicans might have addressed is whether the move will defuse Guantanamo as the terrorist recruiting station it has come to be viewed as around the world. The answer here is, of course, no. The question was never about the "where" of Guantanamo itself; it was always about the "how" of detainee treatment and the United States' commitment to international law. And unless steps are taken to expedite detainees' passage through open and transparent legal processes, nothing about the world's indignation against it will change.

Indeed, the use of the term "detainee management purposes" in Obama's order yesterday was chillingly reminiscent of the neoliberalist jargon deployed to such horrid effect during the Bush era. Moreover, as at the "old" Guantanamo, the "new" Guantanamo will be run not by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, but by the defence department, yet another way that these detainees are cleaved from the legal system.

But amid all the brouhaha about the decision, there are three important things to remember.

First, this is a response to the real difficulty the White House has encountered in finding other places to take the detainees. For all the love-in surrounding Obama's trip to Norway last week, for example, even the Norwegian foreign minister Jonas Gahr Støre has declined to take them, and in no uncertain terms. "Guantanamo is the United States' responsibility," he said last month.

Second, it takes some of the heat (and we ought not to be distracted by this) away from the fact that the move does nothing to resolve the fate of the detainees among this number who will continue to be held indefinitely. Nor does it deal with the question of the treatment of detainees slated for transfer elsewhere -- those whose transfer to Yemen is actively being discussed in particular.

Third, it reminds us that the real problems of Guantanamo still have not been addressed by the present administration. Obama was very good on the symbolism of closing the base at the beginning of this year. He has been less good at addressing the broader legal quagmire of Guantanamo (including the policy of rendition). Moving those who are to be tried by refangled military commission (which the Obama administration could have dropped, but has chosen to continue with) does not address that problem; it simply passes it on.

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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.