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Analysis

May wanted MPs to vote on 4 fantasy customs proposals

by Hugo Dixon | 17.05.2019

Now Theresa May’s talks with Jeremy Corbyn have collapsed, it’s unclear whether she’ll still ask MPs what sort of customs deal they want if we quit the EU. But a leaked document setting out the plan she was hoping to put to Parliament contains four proposals, all of them unicorns.

The prime minister was hoping to kick off the so-called “indicative” votes next week. After the talks with Labour broke down today, May said she would “consider” whether to proceed with the plan.

There were already multiple problems with this idea, also sometimes branded “definitive” votes, as explained by Luke Lythgoe earlier this week. But the new leak to ITV reveals a new problem: that all the ideas on customs are fantasies.

1. “A customs arrangement that combines the benefits of a customs union – no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions – plus no checks on rules of origin when goods move between the UK and the EU with the ability for the UK to determine its own external trade policy and international development policy.”

It is misleading to say we can “determine” our own trade policy if we follow the EU’s tariffs and won’t accept any checks on the origin of goods going from the UK to the EU. Our freedom to cut our own trade deals with the rest of the world will be so severely limited that we won’t be able to do many significant ones.

2. “A comprehensive customs union covering both goods and services, including a UK say in EU trade policy, at least until alternative arrangements that maintain as close to frictionless trade as possible with the EU and no hard border on the island of Ireland have been agreed.”

It’s a free world. So anybody is free to “say” whatever they like about the EU’s trade policies. But that’s totally different from having a vote – something we get now as a result of sitting at the EU’s top table. The EU won’t give us a meaningful say on its trade policy if we quit the bloc. To suggest otherwise – as Labour has been doing – is misleading. It’s worrying that the government is repeating this language.

3. “A customs union covering goods, including a say in relevant EU trade policy, at least until the next election.”

4. “A comprehensive customs union covering both goods and services including a UK say in EU trade policy.”

Both these options suffer from the same problem as the second one. It’s fantasy to suggest that we can have a vote on the EU’s trade policies if we are quitting the club.

It’s now nearly three years since the referendum. The economy is suffering death by a thousand cuts. Our politicians can’t fix the country’s real problems because they are obsessed by Brexit. The public is bored to tears by the whole bloody business. And our government still won’t be honest about our options. What a disgrace.

3 Responses to “May wanted MPs to vote on 4 fantasy customs proposals”

  • Lying and a state of denial about facts that are clear to everyone except brexiteers determined what happened so far. No use to get angry about it; if that is good enough for the 52% (aka “ The People”) under the present way of voting in this country they’re going to win again. Most of all because Mr. Farage (aka Mr. Nige the talking horse), who is one of the greatest liars around, is on the go again and gets wonderful coverage by the media; notably the BBC for reasons not entirely clear seeing it’s very likely they’ll be privatized immediately after the crash off the cliffs. What an excitement, though!

  • Are British politicians still having a problem to understand how the EU works? Or how international trade works? What the WTO does or doesn´t do? Have they ever looked at some of the material the EU has published in the last two years?

    1. To the best of my knowledge a customs agreement or customs union only deals with tariffs and rules of origin. It doesn´t deal with regulatory conformity or sanitary and phyto-sanitary checks for example. It doesn´t deal with VAT. Which means that it wouldn´t solve the Irish border and it wouldn´t give the UK frictionless access to the EU. For that you would need single market membership.
    (If you don´t believe me, search for “EU slide on customs controls”. One of the first results should be an EU slide from May 2018 showing what problems a customs union solve and doesn´t solve. A two page pdf-file.)

    2. A customs “agreement” that will enable the “UK to determine its own external trade policy”? Just what is that supposed to mean?
    The UK can negotiate a free trade agreement with the USA and then can export US goods to the EU without “tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions – plus no checks on rules of origin? That sounds very unicorn-y!
    Or is it a customs agreement only for goods so that the UK can negotiate its own trade agreements for services? I don´t think there are that many (is there even one?) free trade agreements only involving services and not goods?

    3. What the h*ck is a customs union covering services?
    As far as I know there are no tariffs on services? And WTO rules on services are either non-existent or very rudimentary. A customs union deals only with tariffs on goods. For services you need regulatory conformity. And depending on your services quick access for your employees.
    Example: Your company produces machinery, say elevators. These would be goods. A customs union would deal with tariffs but won´t prove regulatory conformity. You would have to prove that separately. And most customers today would like a service contract coupled with the goods order. Yearly maintenance, quick reaction (repair) team in case of failures. Things like that. That´s services. If your quick reaction team first has to apply for a work visa then you´ll probably won´t get the order for the machinery.
    (And if your company is a small to mid-size company then the alternative of creating a subsidiary in the EU might be a bit too expensive. Especially if your home market shrinks from 500 million to 67 million.)

    4. A customs union or agreement with a say in EU trade policy. The Corbyn fudge.
    Well I suppose it depends on the meaning of the word “say”. As the author already mentions.
    I can imagine consultations but the non-EU member UK won´t get a vote, much less a veto, in EU trade policy.