One proposal to break the Brexit impasse is to have a series of freestanding ‘indicative’ votes on the options. If we are going to do this, it’s really important to canvass the right options.
Being in a customs union – the common market which we originally joined in 1973 – is one of the most popular options with the public, who like economic cooperation with our European partners even when they shy away from political union or free movement.
Three objections are generally made to this option.
First, we are told it is too late to renegotiate this “new” idea. In fact however, this would not involve significant changes to the Withdrawal Agreement (although it might obviate the need for the vexed “backstop”) - the legally binding part of the deal negotiated which covers the rights of EU citizens, payments to the EU and the all-important transition period. Yet the most important aspect of Brexit is not the terms on which we leave, it is the nature of our future relationship with the EU. A major feature of the Prime Minister’s package is that the future framework is just that – an open-ended structure which leaves open the nature of the future relationship. This is yet to be negotiated. In order to reduce uncertainty, which is so damaging to the economy, we need now to bolt down much more firmly where we are going. When the EU and the Prime Minister say “it’s her deal or no deal” – they mean given her red lines. But she never agreed these with Parliament. One of them is no involvement of the ECJ, another is not being in a customs union. Relax these, and more becomes possible.
A second challenge is that it means accepting EU regulatory standards. But many industrialists want us to do that anyway! Pharmaceutical giant Glaxo are facing annual Brexit costs of £50million if we leave the European Medicines Agency and Customs Union; the processing industry wants the European Chemicals Agency, and so it goes on. Furthermore, environmentalists want us to keep the EU wide environmental standards and the Trade Unions have consistently set out the case for workers’ rights and the Social Chapter. Moreover, this would actually be easy to agree with the EU. One of their anxieties is that we start to engage in unfair competition by cutting regulatory standards and indeed this is what the Brextremist no dealers want to do.
The third challenge is that it makes it impossible to agree our own free trade agreements with third countries. I fear that this really is taking us into the land of unicorns. By now everyone knows that half of our trade is with the EU and that the UK benefits from free trade agreements with 70 further countries negotiated by the EU. In my role as a Shadow Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister, I meet many government officials from Latin America and South East Asia – key growth points in the world economy – and I always ask them how the discussions are going with the British government on new trade deals. Their response? “If things go well, we’ll keep the EU arrangements.”
For all these reasons I believe the customs union option – which incidentally is Labour Policy – must be on any indicative ballot of MPs.
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