A customs union with the EU27 would be a betrayal of Brexit

By April 1, 2019February 18th, 2021No Comments

A customs union wouldn’t give us a place at the trade table – it would turn us into lunch


PUBLISHED: 00:29, 1 April 2019 | UPDATED: 09:08, 1 April 2019

Dear readers, I am reluctant to do this to you, but we must discuss the ‘indicative votes’ on various forms of Brexit (or no Brexit) which will be held in Parliament today. Amazingly, the future of our country rests on this gimcrack constitutional monstrosity.

After last Wednesday’s first round, out of eight proposals selected by Speaker Bercow, the motion which came closest to gaining a majority was one calling for the Government to negotiate ‘a permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union with the EU’.

It was rejected by 272 votes to 264. So only five MPs need to switch in today’s second eliminating round for it to win a majority.

If that happens, Sir Oliver Letwin — the inventor of this process, and who voted for this particular option — would attempt (with Bercow’s energetic assistance) to turn it into a binding motion, unless the Government agrees to adopt it.

The Government should do no such thing — and not just because the Conservative 2017 election manifesto pledged to leave the customs union.


It is not even the fact that those voting in the EU referendum were promised that Brexit meant being able to make our own trade deals: if it made any sense to break that promise, too, at least it could be explained and justified. But it is simply a terrible idea, on its own terms.

The most insistent argument advanced for it by its Labour supporters, such as Emily Thornberry yesterday, is that it represents a ‘soft Brexit’ which would ‘honour the 48 pc who voted Remain as well as the 52 pc who voted Leave’.

Are we to suppose that if Remain had won by 52 to 48 pc, politicians would have said that in order to ‘honour the 48 pc, we should negotiate to leave at least one EU institution’? Even if they had, we couldn’t have done so because there is no a la carte form of EU membership, as Brussels has so often pointed out.

The European Commission also insists that customs union decisions about trade can be made only by members of the EU. That is made clear in the very first article of the EU treaties on the customs union.

Brussels has already dismissed the idea that the UK could have a vote, let alone a veto, on customs union deals if we attached ourselves to its rules and arrangements as an ex-member of the EU. To be precise, its officials have described this as ‘a fantasy’.

Yet that is what Labour now say they would be able to negotiate.

Either they know this to be untrue (in which case they are lying to the public) or they don’t know (in which case they are too shatteringly ignorant to negotiate with the EU as a governing party).

One of their leading figures has told the truth: Labour’s International Trade spokesman, no less. In July 2017, Barry Gardiner wrote in the Guardian that if the UK remained in ‘a’ customs union with the EU-27, ‘several things would follow: the EU’s 27 members would set the common tariffs and Britain would have no say in how they were set.

‘We would be unable to enter into any bilateral free trade agreement. We would be obliged to align our regulatory regime with the EU in all areas covered by the EU, without any say in the rules we had to adopt. And were, say, the EU to negotiate an agreement with the U.S. that was in the union’s best interests, but against our own, our markets would be obliged to accept American produce with no guarantee of reciprocal access for our own goods into the U.S.’.

Since February 2018, Gardiner has been mute on all these points — because that was when Labour switched their policy to backing ‘a’ customs union with the EU.

Gardiner’s present silence is as eloquent as his earlier demolition of the proposal he is now obliged to appear to support.