He’s at it again.
Rarely has a senior government official spoken with such candour about his opposition to a leader’s ideas, but Boris Johnson has this week launched a scathing attack on Theresa May’s plans for a customs union after the Brexit deal is carried out.
The bouffanted foreign secretary has labelled the plans, which the PM has unravelled in the past few weeks, as ‘crazy’.
“If you have the new customs partnership, you have a crazy system whereby you end up collecting the tariffs on behalf of the EU at the UK frontier,” BoJo told the Daily Mail. “If the EU decides to impose punitive tariffs on something the UK wants to bring in cheaply there’s nothing you can do.
“[The customs union] is totally untried and would make it very, very difficult to do free trade deals.”
The customs partnership is one of two models being considered by May and her Brexit team ahead of the conscious uncoupling scheduled for March 2019.
The Downing Street team has responded with a slap on the wrist for Johnson, stating that the prime minister retained ‘full confidence’ in the foreign secretary before confirming that the entire cabinet was on board with her plans.
It signals a further divide between the prime minister and one of her key aides however, with the pair regularly not seeing eye to eye. If the customs union is pushed through, it would remain to be seen whether that would make Johnson’s position in the cabinet untenable.
What is a Customs Union?
So why is Boris getting his knickers in a twist about the proposal?
A customs union is an agreement between a number of parties that decides to impose the same tariffs on imported goods, and so in this case the UK and the EU would be on the same page as far as a trade deal is concerned.
The idea behind the union is that it ultimately saves time and money when performing customs checks, which speeds up trade between the UK, the EU and other members of the agreement.
A customs union post-Brexit could also solve the problem of the Irish border as well.
So Why Does the Customs Union Have Opposition?
The key premise behind the arguments against a customs union is that it erodes the ability to strike free trade deals, which could yield better terms for the UK in future alliances with EU member nations.
A loss of autonomy is considered a lack of power, and in this scenario the EU could impose tariffs on imported goods and there would be little that the UK could do if they sign up to a customs union.
So What the Heck is ‘Max Fac’?
As part of his tirade, Johnson referred to the so-called ‘max fac’ system, which is short for maximum facilitation.
This is the use of technology at border controls to quicken the customs process, which would in theory circumnavigate the benefits of the customs union.
This would be costly to implement in the first instance, but would enable the UK to retain autonomy in terms of striking up trade deals with interested parties.
Are There Any Alternatives?
The government has also posited the idea of a trade partnership with the EU, which would allow the UK some freedom to operate as we please while retaining an alliance of sorts with the EU.
This is considered to be the moderate, ‘please everyone’ approach….although Boris doesn’t see it that way.
“That’s not taking back control of your trade policy, it’s not taking back control of your laws, it’s not taking back control of your borders and it’s actually not taking back control of your money either, because tariffs would get paid centrally back to Brussels,” he said.
And a trade partnership would not necessarily solve the problem of regulatory conditions as far as the EU and Ireland are concerned. “It only solves the Northern Ireland border question if you force companies to prove that an imported tariff-reduced good has been consumed in the UK and if you insist on complete regulatory alignment with the EU rule book,” Johnson continued.
Your own ideas on the subject are likely to be weighted in favour of whether you see Boris as a) an incompetent buffoon, or b) a potential future leader of this country.
One thing that is for sure is that any customs union agreement is unlikely to appease Leave voters any time soon.