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US deal damned whether we’re in EU customs union or not

by Luke Lythgoe | 25.04.2019

No matter what type of Brexit the UK pursues, Brexiters’ dream of a transatlantic trade deal is going nowhere. The White House is against doing a deal if the UK stays in a customs union with the EU. However, many politicians in Congress are against any deal if we’re outside the customs union and the Good Friday Agreement is damaged as a result.

This damned if you’re in, damned if you’re out problem comes from the way America does trade deals. It is the executive branch of government – Donald Trump’s White House – which negotiates any US trade deals. But legislators in both the House of Representatives and the Senate play a role throughout the process, crucially setting the negotiating objectives and having the final decision on whether to implement any deal.

Woody Johnson, US ambassador to the UK, is the latest voice from the Trump administration warning against a UK-EU trade deal, saying it would make a trade deal with the US “much more difficult”.

This comes a week after Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and a Democrat, warned that any disruption to Northern Ireland’s peace settlement will make the Brexiters’ dream of a US-UK trade deal a “non starter”.

Being in a customs union with the EU is one of the things needed to keep the Irish border as free flowing as it is today. Without it, and without following many EU rules, goods will have to be checked somewhere. That means hard infrastructure – be it cameras, zones for customs checks and even officials. All could become a target for sectarian violence.

The customs union is at the heart of the lacklustre talks between Labour and the Tories – with the opposition wanting Theresa May to embrace one and hardline Tory Brexiters strongly opposed. But the various noises from America are showing that a US-UK trade deal will face strong resistance if there’s any form of Brexit.

Even if we eventually managed to clinch a deal with the US post-Brexit, we would be bullied. Opening up our NHS to American drug giants and our supermarkets to chlorine-washed chicken would only be the start.

Much the best policy is to stay in the EU and negotiate with the US as part of the largest economic bloc in the world.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon