The price of speaking your mind

The abduction of a Syrian blogger serves as a reminder of the volatile situation in the country.

Imagine you are a young woman walking through the streets of your home town with a friend on a balmy summer evening, when you are seized by three armed men and bundled into the back of a car. Your family have no idea where you are or who has taken you -- you are entirely helpless.

This is the fate that has befallen Amina Abdallah Arraf, a Syrian blogger and poet who has achieved relative notoreity for her frank discussion of the country's politics and the logistics of being a lesbian in a traditionally conservative society. Her blog, A Gay Girl in Damascus, has acquired a considerable following in both Syria and abroad -- a fact that seems not to have escaped the notice of the country's security forces.

Since her kidnapping last night, there has been no news of her whereabouts or her safety. Her disappearance was reported on her blog by her cousin, Rania Ismail.

"Amina was seized by three men in their early 20s. One of the men then put his hand over [her] mouth and they hustled her into a red Dacia Logan...Amina's present location is unknown and it is unclear if she is in jail or being held elsewhere in Damascus... We do not know who has taken her, so we do not know who to ask for her back."

For Amina's family, the anguish of not knowing her fate must be almost unbearable -- but this incident is important not only for the dramatic way in which Amina was taken, but also because it deals a further blow to freedom of speech in a country known for its brutal treatment of dissenters and activists. According to human rights groups, over 10,000 individuals -- including women and children -- have been forcibly detained since anti-government protests began in March.

Social media has its role to play here. The "Free Amina Arraf" Facebook page has already amassed over 4,000 followers (and counting), and activists have been tweeting the news using the hashtag #FreeAmina. But it is difficult to know how much impact such guestures will really have. For Amina and those like her, incacerated for speaking their minds, there is little left to do but wait in hope. As she herself wrote in a poem entitled "Bird Songs" in her last blog post on Monday: "Freedom is coming/ Here I am wanting/ To know it one day".

 

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is a freelance journalist currently living and working in London. She has written for the Sunday Express, the Daily Telegraph and the Economist online.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review, an online journal covering arts and culture in the Arab world. She also works as a freelance journalist specialising in the politics of the Middle East.

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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.