The EU customs union works. But clearly, the government does not | Jonathan Lis

Downing Street has bowed to the Brexiteers and said we will leave the customs union – even if it cripples UK manufacturing

Sometimes the most damaging thing a useful bureaucratic instrument can do is work seamlessly. As it becomes absorbed into our infrastructure, it gradually makes itself so ordinary and invisible that we assume we no longer need it. So it is with much of our EU integration, and, in particular, customs. Downing Street has seemingly confirmed that we will not enter any form of long-term customs union with the EU after Brexit. Its complacency is dangerously predictable – and predictably dangerous.

At its core, the customs union is relatively simple. Unlike the single market, which covers the free movement of goods (and services, capital and people), and ensures their harmonised standards, the customs union instead acts like a tariff firewall around the EU. Goods entering the bloc from outside face the same tariff whether they arrive in Athens, Lisbon or Felixstowe. Having incurred the tariff just once, they are then entitled to travel freely through all EU member states and join complex supply chains.

Outside the customs union, things become more complicated. We may, for example, have a zero-tariff agreement with the EU, but if we sign a trade deal with China, Australia or the US, we will slash our tariffs for those countries while the EU keeps them. If an open border exists between Ireland and Northern Ireland, there will be little to stop American agricultural goods – chlorinated chicken, say – from arriving in the UK tariff-free, then entering Ireland (and then the rest of the EU) untroubled by the requisite EU tax or regulation. This is why Norway, which is in the single market but not in the customs union, operates customs checks on its border with Sweden.

A hard border in Ireland is not merely an inconvenience. It is an existential insult to add to the historic injuries of colonialism, partition and the Troubles. New border infrastructure would not only prise open old wounds, but become an instant security threat. At the same time, the possibility of disrupted island-of-Ireland trade could render supply chains unsustainable and send businesses on either side of the border to the wall. Meanwhile, the British demand that the Irish simply ignore their own laws in order to accommodate our desire for UK-only trade deals speaks to this government’s toxic combination of exceptionalism and delusion.

The issue is not only about Ireland. The customs union enables goods from the continent to enter UK ports, and vice versa, on a roll-on, roll-off basis, free of checks and red tape. The post-Brexit introduction of new checks at all UK ports makes a mockery of Brexiters’ complaints about the expense and bureaucracy associated with EU membership.

We would require numerous lorry parks (unbuilt with just a year to go) to accommodate queues and delays, along with new customs infrastructure and thousands more staff. It would be among the most bureaucratic endeavours ever undertaken by the modern British state. At the same time, our exit from a customs union would suffocate the just-in-time manufacturing that depends on genuinely frictionless transport of goods in and out of the UK.

How, then, could Theresa May advocate such a course of action? As with so much else in Brexit, it has little to do with the customs union itself, and everything to do with the prime minister’s rhetoric and job. The vacuous slogan “global Britain” demands new trade deals for the sake of glory, vanity and nostalgia, even as the government’s own research demonstrates that they will not replace EU trade or stop us getting poorer. Many of the hardliners, moreover, appear to loathe EU instruments based on principle alone. Downing Street’s decision may just be related to the threatened termination of May’s career if she dares to defy them.

Sadly for the Brexiteers, the government has already signed up to an agreement with the EU that refers explicitly to the customs union. According to paragraph 49 of December’s joint report, the UK will “maintain full alignment with those rules of the … customs union which, now or in the future, support … the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 [Good Friday] agreement”. Nobody in the government has yet been able to explain how the UK can abide by that commitment while simultaneously leaving the customs union. The Irish, tired of being dismissed, patronised and ignored by the Brexiteers, will not let the government off the hook. If we reject December’s agreement, we reject any deal with the EU at all.

Before 2016, the most troublesome aspect of British customs was the occasional queue of lorries on the M20 motorway. Now it threatens to cripple British manufacturing and reverse the Irish peace process. The government, for its part, determines its customs policy not on evidence, compromise or the national interest, but on neo-imperial fantasy, Europhobic fanaticism and fear of the prime minister’s colleagues. The customs union works. The government does not. Let us be sure we ditch the right one.

• Jonathan Lis is deputy director of the thinktank British Influence

Contributor

Jonathan Lis

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Theresa May, here’s my solution to the Brexit customs conundrum | Henry Newman
Director of Open Europe, Henry Newman, says the thinktank’s compromise approach could be the answer the government is looking for

Henry Newman

03, Jul, 2018 @12:51 PM

Article image
No 10’s customs union claim is another delusional Brexit falsehood | Miriam González Durantez
An agreement with the EU would not stop Britain negotiating trade deals with other countries, writes the former EU trade negotiator Miriam González Durantez

Miriam Gonzalez Durantez

01, Mar, 2018 @2:45 PM

Article image
The customs union could save Britain. Labour should support staying in | Molly Scott Cato
Remaining in the customs union post-Brexit is vital to our manufacturing sector. Labour should change tack, says Green MEP Molly Scott Cato

Molly Scott Cato

23, Jan, 2018 @12:36 PM

Article image
If Johnson adds a customs union, remainers should finally accept his deal | Simon Jenkins
Such a concession would allow all sides to honour the political objective of Brexit and end uncertainty, says Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins

Simon Jenkins

21, Oct, 2019 @12:02 PM

Article image
Europe’s response to May’s plan could cost her more ministers | Charles Grant
May will have to make concessions to the EU before it will accept her Chequers plan, says Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform

Charles Grant

10, Jul, 2018 @5:24 PM

Article image
I’m an ardent Brexiteer, but May’s plan is the ideal compromise | Michael Fabricant
The Chequers proposal makes sense if we are to have a continuing relationship with Europe, says Conservative MP Michael Fabricant

Michael Fabricant

09, Jul, 2018 @1:48 PM

Article image
Staying in a customs union would be dire for British trade. Here’s why | Greg Hands
I say this as a remain voter – customs union membership without EU membership would mean ceding control on vital economic policies, says former trade minister Greg Hands

Greg Hands

22, Oct, 2018 @11:07 AM

Article image
Staying in a customs union after Brexit won’t resolve the Irish border issue | Pascal Lamy
Labour’s proposal may not be as simple as it seems, says Pascal Lamy

Pascal Lamy

12, Apr, 2019 @8:21 AM

Article image
Yes, Donald Trump is talking perfect sense on May’s Brexit deal | Peter Mandelson
Negotiating trade deals is a long, painful process, says Peter Mandelson, former EU trade commissioner

Peter Mandelson

27, Nov, 2018 @7:30 PM

Article image
The value of the customs union to the UK is overrated | Larry Elliott
It’s seen as a key part of a soft Brexit, but in reality the union has not provided much of a boost, says the Guardian’s economics editor, Larry Elliott

Larry Elliott

04, Apr, 2019 @5:00 AM