According to reports, the Prime Minister is now entertaining the notion of Britain remaining in the customs union until 2023. The suggestion is that a second proposal will follow the 2020 transition deal, which will see the UK continue to collect EU customs until 2023. This is potentially calamitous news for post-Brexit Britain, and particularly UK businesses. This latest development risks stalling ‘Global Britain’ before it’s even started.
A government fudge on the customs union jeopardises our freedom to strike our own deals with the rest of the world, throwing away the best opportunity Brexit offers, the freedom to strike our own trade-deals.
A central plank of the Leave campaign was ‘we’ll be free to trade with the whole world’. The only way this can happen is by leaving the customs union, which by it’s very definition prevents us from charting our own course. There is simply no other way the freedom to trade can be achieved. The union’s cornerstone is that the EU Commission negotiates external tariffs on behalf of all members.
How can the EU Commission negotiating tariffs on goods and services coming in and out of our country for years to come be considered leaving? I doubt many, or any, Leave voters thought this should or would be the outcome of Brexit.
Therefore, for the government to now contemplate remaining in this set-up, hot on the heels of their ill-advised ‘customs partnership’ suggestion, is extremely surprising and potentially damaging. Jeremy Corbyn has gone one step further saying ‘Labour would seek to negotiate a new comprehensive UK-EU customs union’. The House of Lords went further still, voting to effectively keep Britain in the single market, despite this being a flagrant contradiction with the public vote to leave. With behaviour like this it is little wonder that when asked, only 17% of people said they ‘trusted politicians’. It is backsliding of this sort which accounts for those numbers being so abjectly low.
This shouldn’t even be up for debate, it was clear from the moment we chose to leave that the ability to strike trade deals on our terms was essential. How can these politicians stand up and tell the British public that this is what Brexit could look like, dismantling a core promise of the successful Leave campaign? How can they think holding back on the start of complex trade negotiations is anything other than a terrible idea?
I am absolutely in favour of a free trade deal with Europe, something I believe is in both of our best interests. I argued the case for this throughout the referendum and have done so many times since. What is often forgotten is how important maintaining tariff-free access to the UK market is to European businesses. With an £82bn trade deficit with the continent, EU governments would have to explain to their exporters why they’ve made their goods less competitive in a major market. Of course, I also accept that no free trade deal with Europe could do harm to British businesses European exports.
However, the price of this absolutely shouldn’t be to sacrifice our opportunity to make trade deals elsewhere. Open-ended membership of a customs-union risks just that. Without doubt the last thing we should be doing right now is tying one hand behind our back just as we start looking to strike new trade deals. A fudge on customs would arguably be even worse than simply staying in Europe. It is either in or out, and we chose out.
I appreciate that the Customs Union and Northern Ireland issues are indelibly linked. The latter however is a political issue and I am not, nor ever have been, a politician. Those in power have had 2 years to provide an answer to this difficult issue and have come up with nothing. However, I am a businessman and know from my decades at the helm of Phones 4U that hamstringing companies with an indefinite inability to trade freely across the world would wreck a golden opportunity.
If we want to tell the world that Britain is open for business, we must leave the Customs Union as soon as possible.