Let’s not stay in limbo for years until we sort out customs

by Hugo Dixon | 14.05.2018

As the Cabinet fights over our future customs arrangements, kicking the whole thing into touch for several years could end up as the path of least resistance. This was proposed by Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s former chief of staff, last week.

Over the weekend, Michael Gove became the latest Brexiter to put the boot into May’s favourite scheme, the so-called “customs partnership”, telling Nick Robinson, who was guest-hosting the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, that it was flawed. The agriculture secretary was only last week appointed to a new sub-committee, which meets today to consider the plan.

Gove is right that the customs partnership, which is supposed to avoid border controls with the EU, won’t work. It involves separating goods entering the UK into those destined for domestic consumption and those that will be exported – and tracking them to make sure that those supposed to stay here don’t end up in the EU.

But the alternative “Max Fac” scheme, which is supposed to streamline border controls, is also flawed. It would gum up the flow of trade and couldn’t be part of a solution to the Irish border problem because it doesn’t even pretend to do away with frontier checks.

No wonder the Brexit War Cabinet, which meets again tomorrow, is going round and round in circles.

But what about Timothy’s idea that we could stay in the EU’s customs union for a few more years until we figure out the technology behind Max Fac? Could it square the circle?

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Fudge with strings attached

The prime minister is adamant that we should quit the customs union. That’s why the government is in such a mess in the first place. But we know the customs union works because we’re already part of it.

A fudge that keeps us in it until we’ve sorted things out might just paper over the divisions between the Cabinet’s warring factions. It might also just be acceptable to the EU. But Brussels would probably attach the following conditions.

  • Max Fac would only kick in if and when the technology works. Until then, we’d need to stay in the customs union.
  • If we ever tired of the customs union and wanted to pull out before Max Fac worked, we would still be legally obliged to keep the Irish border open. We would then have to impose border controls in the Irish Sea, which would be anathema to unionists both in Britain and Northern Ireland.
  • Since staying in the customs union isn’t enough to avoid border controls in Ireland, we’d also need to follow the EU’s rules, at least on goods and agriculture. The simplest way of doing that would be to stay in the single market while we wait until Max Fac works, which could be ages.

In other words, to make Timothy’s plan work, we’d need a much longer transition. That would mean more years paying into the EU’s budget and following its rules, without a vote on them. No wonder Gove told the Andrew Marr Show: “I don’t believe in an extension”.

Such can-kicking would also be bad for business. Industry would be stuck in limbo-land year after year not knowing what the future holds. That would stifle investment – leading to lower paid jobs and less money for public services such as the NHS than would otherwise be the case.

It would certainly be in the prime minister’s character to put off difficult decisions for as long as possible. But make no mistake: such epic can-kicking would be a dereliction of duty.

An extended transition while we wait for some magical new technology to appear is a thoroughly bad idea. But since this government only has bad ideas, it is possible that it will plump for this one. All the more reason for a people’s vote on the deal, once the prime minister has finally worked out what Brexit means.

2 Responses to “Let’s not stay in limbo for years until we sort out customs”

  • There are only two distinct options available, first, what I believe to be Mays intention, a very hard brexit with nothing agreed, which means hard borders at every access point on the UK borders, obviously including NI.
    Currently she is misdirecting, and flanneling, ensuring that we continue to go nowhere with any agreement with the EU, when the crunch comes, she will incorrectly blame EU intransigence, and expect us to all fall in line with a No Deal brexit.
    Not to mention complete and utter chaos in hundreds of policy areas, leading to fiscal meltdown and TM being fired.
    Or we stay in the EU exactly as we are, the strong and stable, influential full members of the EU.
    Anything else is untenable!

  • If the advocates of the “Max Fac” arrangement think it is such a splendid and workable solution, you’d wonder why the Government haven’t been pushing faster for introducing it at Dover or Heathrow. Doing away with all those unnecessary immigration officials and checks on foreigners entering the UK. What objections could any Brexiteers possibly have?!