Brexit means Brexit, as the oft-repeated bon mot to verbally bash Leave voters states. It’s a fairly empty statement, but one which the Conservatives have been trying manfully to live up to during the past week.
The negotiations to leave the European Union are ongoing, and one of the hot potatoes to be discussed is how trade deals between the UK and members of the single market will be conducted post-Brexit.
One of the ideas that has been floated is that of a customs union, which is simply a trade agreement between two or more parties that would, potentially, allow the UK to continue to conduct business with EU member states; a so-called ‘frictionless’ trade treaty. This ensures that the tariffs can be set on goods and services that are same in and outside of the union – and ensures ‘independent’ deals are not struck between parties.
But that old charmer Jeremy Hunt came out this week and expressly stated that the government would not support a customs union as part of their Brexit demands.
The health secretary – and nobody is quite sure why he is commenting on a subject that is so far removed from his remit – did confirm that the idea of frictionless trade does appeal to Theresa May and co, however the government would go about securing that in a different way, as opposed to a common customs union which is simple to regulate and easy to participate in.
He told the BBC’s Radio 4 programme Today that a custom union was ‘one way of getting frictionless trade, but it is not the only way.’ He was perhaps referring to a ‘mutual recognition’ agreement, which means the UK would not be governed by EU rules past the end of the divorce period.
Given his limited scope on the topic, Hunt wasn’t actually invited to a meeting of senior ministers at Chequers, where the notion of a customs union was discussed along with a bunch of other items in an eight-hour long briefing (and you thought your meetings at work were boring!).
But like the good boy he is, Hunt reported that there had been ‘very positive discussions’ and ‘good progress’ made. How he knows that is anybody’s guess given he isn’t considered important enough to invite, but maybe he listened in with a glass against the wall.
Trouble on the Horizon
As is ever the case with political issues when there are points to be scored, an opposition group has waded into the debate and said that a customs union is the only way to continue business with EU relations – it’s an opposition comprising members of Labour and the Lib Dems as well as dyed-in-the-wool Tories.
Anna Soubry, the MP for Broxtowe in Nottinghamshire, tweeted that she has ‘tabled a new amendment to #TradeBill mandating Govt to form a Customs Union with #EU’, showing that a) old people do know how to use hashtags, and b) there is opposition within the Conservative Party as to how a mutually-beneficial future of trade with EU members might look.
Soubry has plenty of support from Tories and the other main parties, with silver fox and occasional spy (allegedly) Jeremy Corbyn expected to announce his support for a customs union when giving a talk on Monday.
If that is a scenario that does play out, that would mean another Commons debate with the prime minister and her colleagues; another headache for May given the growing number of pro-Europe supporters in her party.
Allies in the pro-EU movement, including Labour MP Chuka Umunna, believe that a customs union is essential to protect British businesses and ensure they are not left behind in a post-Brexit world.
There is no majority in the House of Commons for us not to participate in the customs union, that is absolutely clear….it’s the reality of the parliamentary arithmetic,” he said.
“If they are not going to change their position they are going to lose votes in the House of Commons, it’s a straightforward as that.”
Going Out, Out
The Brexit negotiations continue amid an eye-opening, but probably not all that surprising, set of figures released by the Office of National Statistics.
These found that more Brits are emigrating to live abroad than those who are returning to the UK after the Leave vote, while net migration was also at its lowest for five years.
Some 130,000 EU nationals have left the UK in the past year, with 220,000 moving the other way. It is the slowest migratory growth rate since 2013.