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Analysis

Is May about to make biggest u-turn yet on customs union?

by Hugo Dixon | 02.10.2018

Hidden amidst the inflammatory rhetoric comparing the EU to the Soviet Union and tough language that the “ball is in their court”, is the government about to make its biggest Brexit u-turn yet: offering to stay in the customs union for potentially a very long time?

Theresa May is going to do exactly that, according to The Times. She will accept that the UK will have the same tariffs as the EU and be bound by its trade policy until a “mutually acceptable technological solution to the Irish border issue was found”. The paper says: “Britain would also accept demands that goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain must meet European standards, with the potential for checks in the Irish Sea.”

The prime minister will not be happy that this story has been published in the midst of the Tory conference when she is trying to look tough with her party faithful to head off a potential leadership challenge from Boris Johnson. That’s presumably also why she is ramping up the rhetoric about controlling migration.

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Perpetual purgatory

But back in the real world, May knows she has to make more concessions to the EU if she wants a deal. Staying in the customs union for as long as the eye can see would be a big one. Still, it has the merit of being viable – unlike the prime minister’s nightmarishly bureaucratic plan to separate goods coming into the UK into those that are going to stay here and those which will end up in the EU, charge different tariffs for them and track them electronically to make sure UK-destined goods don’t end up accidentally in the EU.

The government could still pay lip-service to the idea that some fancy technological solution could be developed. But with no time limit on finding such a solution and the acceptance that the EU would have to be happy with any new technology, departure from customs union purgatory would be the stuff of never-never land.

Irish Sea border

A customs union u-turn would help solve the Irish border issue, but it wouldn’t be enough. That’s why May is also going to agree that goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain must meet EU standards and that there can be checks in the Irish Sea to ensure they do, according to The Times. Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab confirmed last night that the government was looking into how regulatory checks might work.

Quite how the prime minister hopes to square such a concession with her rhetoric about not accepting anything that would divide “our precious union” isn’t clear. One possibility is that she still hopes that the EU will agree some variation of her friendless Chequers proposal, under which the whole UK would follow EU rules on goods. In that case, there would be no need for an Irish Sea border.

But if the EU sticks to its insistence that we can’t have free movement of goods without free movement of people and services, there’s another possibility: that the government agrees an indefinite customs union, an Irish Sea border and agrees a free trade deal between Great Britain and the EU.

This would, of course, damage our economy (because it would do little to protect our world-beating services industries) and divide the United Kingdom. But maybe that’s what the government will be driven to. Is this what Raab meant when he told The Sun that the government was prepared to consider “alternative proposals” to Chequers?

Whichever way one looks at it, a u-turn on the lines of what The Times is reporting would make a mockery of the government’s Brexit policy.

The third to last paragraph was edited shortly after publication to remove the word “conventional” before “free trade deal” and the second to last paragraph was edited to change “nothing” to “little”.

Tags: , Categories: Brexit

One Response to “Is May about to make biggest u-turn yet on customs union?”

  • Fudge Fudge & more Fudge is a likely outcome leaving a bitterly divided country even more split
    Another People’s Vote is not a sure fire remedy, but the lack of any other constructive idea it is the best there is for us remaining a United Kingdom