Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Customs Union Impasse is like Two Bald Men fighting over a Comb

Yet another meeting of the Brexit Cabinet broke up today without any agreement on resolving the movement of goods between the EU and UK once we depart the union. Not only will failing to come to some agreement lead to delays importing and exporting between Britain and the EU, particularly important to manufacturers needing different component parts to assemble finished products, but also crucial to resolving the border problem in Ireland.

The prime minister, Theresa May, says that two options are still on the table. Option one, May’s preferred option, is of a customs partnership, whereby the UK collects tariffs on behalf of the EU. There is opposition to this within the Cabinet and outside, with Brexiters against it, saying it is unworkable, or ‘crazy’ to use the foreign secretary Boris Johnson’s term. Johnson may be right unless the partnership looks very much like the existing customs union, which is unacceptable to the hard Brexiters in the Tory party.

Option two is a so-called 'maximum facilitation' model, which is basically a fancy name for using smartphone apps to not check cars and lorries at the border. It is hard to see how this would stop smuggling between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and then on wider into the rest of EU. Cameras can’t possibly make the same checks on goods, as part of the ‘country of origin’ EU tariff rules. It is also likely that any cameras would be attacked, in a hark back to the violence largely brought to an end by the Good Friday Agreement.

So, with no agreement in government on a preferred solution to  what replaces the customs union, the decision is delayed, in the hope that something will turn up. But the irony here is that both of the government’s options have already been ruled out by the EU as unworkable, even if they could decide on a unified position.

Meanwhile, the clock ticks ever louder as we approach leaving the EU, either with no deal at all, or if the prime minister holds to her word on the phase one negotiations, the fall back position is for the UK to remain in the customs union and possibly the single market as well. Neither of these outcomes will of course be acceptable to Tory MPs on either side of the debate.

This offers us a clue as to why May is pursuing a fantasy fix which is unacceptable to the EU, and on the surface a complete waste of precious time. Like everything about Brexit, this is about the Tory party’s obsession with Europe. May has survived as prime minister as long as she has since last year’s disastrous general election, by not confronting reality right up until the last minute, and then caving in to the EU. This is precisely what happened with phase one of the negotiations and why May was forced to accept the EU fall back position on the Irish border.

At the same time Parliament seems to be making its own mind up on Brexit, or least the majority of MPs anyway. There will be a vote in the House of Commons on staying in the customs union at some stage this year, after the Lords sent back the Brexit Bill amended to force the government’s hand. I think there is probably a comfortable majority in the House of Commons for staying in the customs union, now that Labour has made it part of their official policy.

If Parliament does indeed vote to remain in ‘a’ customs union with the EU, then May can say that she had no choice but to accept the decision, and the hard Brexit group of Tory MPs will be able to do nothing about it. Even if they brought down May’s government, any replacement prime minister would be in exactly the same position, with their hands tied.   

So, maybe this is Mrs May’s cunning plan, keeping fudging until staying in the customs union becomes a fait accompli? It will be extremely amusing to see all those Tory Brexiters foaming at the mouth and even self-combusting, as the reality of what is going on sinks in.

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