Last Wednesday, the European Commission published its draft withdrawal treaty setting out the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.
It came in the same week that Jeremy Corbyn confirmed Labour’s desire for the UK to have a customs union with the EU. The distinction between “a” customs union and “the” customs union is hardly a conversation starter, but there is an important technical – rather than political – difference.
The UK is only in the customs union because of our membership of the EU. When we leave the European Union we will, by definition, leave the treaties that keep us in “the” customs union. Any new customs union with the EU will have to be drawn up as part of the withdrawal agreement, but in practice, the effect would be the same as it is now.
Tory Brexiteers claim this will impede our ability to strike up new trade deals with non-EU countries, but the notion that there are countries around the world queuing up to strike free trade agreements with the UK is fantasy politics.
The European Union is our largest trading partner and our first priority must be to ensure there are no tariffs or barriers to that trade. We have significantly more clout on the world stage as members of the European Union and if we want to retain some of that clout when we leave, we must continue to work closely with it.
We stand a better chance of striking good trade deals, jointly, as partners with the EU, than we do on our own. A UK-EU customs union is also the only possible solution to the prospect of a hard border in Ireland. The commitment given in phase one of the negotiations was welcome, but the practical reality of how no hard border would be achieved was simply kicked down the road and is now coming back to haunt the Prime Minister.
Last week, Boris Johnson compared managing the movement of people, goods and services across an international border between two sovereign nations in Ireland with using traffic cameras to manage congestion charges in different boroughs of London.
We have seen politicians openly attacking the Good Friday Agreement in the name of achieving a destructive no-deal Brexit. Theresa May’s endless prevaricating on the border issue has created a vacuum that is being filled with the idiotic and dangerous language of politicians who either don’t know what they are talking about or really ought to know better.
The only way to keep good on the commitment to have both no hard border and no regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK is an EU-UK customs union.
The Prime Minister has thus far tried to get away with balancing two irreconcilable positions within her party, but 60 of her MPs have now signed a letter demanding that she commit to a hard Brexit. With only 48 MPs required to trigger a vote of no confidence, sooner or later, something’s got to give.