Iraqi troops chant slogans against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) in Baghdad today. Photo: AFP
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UK failure to intervene in Syria has emboldened Iraqi insurgents, says Foreign Affairs Committee chair

Senior MP Sir Richard Ottaway speaks out on Iraq.

Sir Richard Ottaway, the Conservative chair of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, has said that Britain's failure to intervene in the Syrian civil war last year has emboldened the Sunni insurgents now storming Iraq.

Speaking to me earlier today, Sir Richard said: "I think we're seeing pigeons coming home to roost in Iraq. Not with reference to as far back as 2003 perhaps, but the vote in Parliament last August not to intervene in Syria has given confidence to the troublemakers in the region."

He added: "It has left a power vacuum, which doesn't ever remain open for long - people step into it. We're now seeing the geopolitical consequences of our vote last year. It was a mistake then, it's a mistake now."

The robust comments by the respected parliamentary committee chair stand in contrast to the response from the government, which has been criticised as weak.

The Prime Minister was censured for dining in a celebrity hotspot last night while the Iraqi crisis worsened, and the House of Commons was chastened following the failure of a single MP to raise the insurgency during Prime Minister's Questions yesterday noon.

Earlier today David Cameron spoke with Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen about the crisis. Downing Street immediately stressed that the conversation did not relate to any possible Nato deployment of military resources, however, which has been ruled out.

Foreign Secretary William Hague has today urged Iraqi leaders from all communities to unite in responding to the "brutal aggression against their country". He also announced earlier: "We will continue to work urgently within the UN Security Council to help concert the wider international response".

In the US "all options" remain under consideration, including a military response to combat the rebels. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is in London for a conference on ending sexual violence in warzones, has indicated that President Barack Obama will make "timely decisions".

In the meantime the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate, as the rebels sweep south towards Baghdad, having claimed two further towns in Diyala province. This afternoon Iraq's most senior cleric issued a call to arms against the Sunni insurgents, threatening worse violence.

While the West has been cautious in its response, Shia-majority Iran has lost no time offering support to its neighbour against the Sunni insurgency, the extension of which could threaten Iran's own the stability and security. Earlier today Iranian President Hassan Rouhani telephoned Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to promise his nation’s support to the Shia-dominated Iraqi government.

When even the respected US journal Foreign Policy has called on readers to "step back from the breathless news for a second”, adding “it might be prudent to let the situation develop for a week or so”, developments on the ground in Iraq look in danger of overtaking the West.

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

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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.