May faces Commons customs union showdown

May faces Commons showdown as Remainers demand Britain stays in the EU customs union – but Tory MPs have been told not to turn up for vote

  • House of Commons is due to debate whether UK should stay in customs union
  • Theresa May has made leaving EU customs union a red line in Brexit talks
  • Vote today is non-binding but could test whether she will be able to hold policy
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Theresa May faces a Commons showdown today as Remainers demand that Britain stays in the EU customs union.

The Prime Minister’s prospects of holding her Brexit red lines are being tested in a non-binding debate in the House – after the government suffered an overwhelming defeat on the issue in the Lords.

Downing Street has played down the significance of the session, insisting it is a ‘routine backbench business debate’. Most Tory MPs are expected to stay away from the division lobbies.

But a handful of Europhile Conservatives – including former ministers Nicky Morgan, Dominic Grieve and Bob Neill – have all publicly vowed to back today’s motion.

The Commons is debating the idea of staying in a customs union as pressure grows on Mrs May from both Brexiteers and Remainers

Theresa May’s prospects of holding her Brexit red lines will be tested in a non-binding debate in the House. She is pictured at PMQs yesterday 

Former chancellor Kenneth Clarke and backbencher Heidi Allen have also suggested they will vote against Government policy on the issue today.

Pro-Brussels Tories believe they can put on a show of strength that could force the Prime Minister to back down on her vow that the UK will not be part of any customs union with the EU after Brexit.

The debate comes amid growing pressure on Mrs May from both Brexiteers and Remainers. 

Yesterday the DUP’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds said his party – which is propping up Mrs May in power – could never accept a deal that led to Northern Ireland being treated differently from the rest of Britain.

He told the Conservative Home website: ‘If, as a result of the Brexit negotiations, there was to be any suggestion that Northern Ireland would be treated differently – in a way for instance that we were part of a customs union and a single market and the rest of the UK wasn’t – for us that would be a red line.

‘We would vote against the Government, because you might as well have a Corbyn government pursuing openly its anti-Unionist policies as have a Conservative government doing it by a different means. ‘The Government’s well aware that when it comes to Brexit and the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom has to leave the European Union and all its institutions together.’

Mr Dodds said there were forces in Dublin, Brussels and Westminster trying to exploit the Irish border issue to ‘thwart Brexit’.

He accused them of ‘continually harping on about the border (even though) they’ve never shown any interest in Northern Ireland’.

There were also a series of calls from senior Tories to stick to her pledge to take the UK out of the customs union.

Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom said it would be ‘ludicrous to be in a customs union’ after Brexit as it would rob Britain of the ability to strike new trade deals. 

In the Commons, Tory grandee Julian Lewis asked Mrs May if she ‘still subscribes to her excellent maxim that no deal is better than a bad deal, and does she acknowledge that locking ourselves into a customs union with the EU after Brexit would be a very bad deal indeed?’

A handful of Europhile Conservatives – including former ministers Nicky Morgan (left) and Dominic Grieve (right) – have publicly vowed to back today’s motion

Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom said yesterday that it would be ‘ludicrous to be in a customs union’ after Brexit as it would rob Britain of the ability to strike new trade deals

The Prime Minister replied: ‘I am very happy to confirm what I have always said: no deal is better than a bad deal. 

‘As regards being in a customs union, that means that we would not be able to negotiate our own trade deals around the rest of the world, and we want to be able to do that.’

Brexit Secretary David Davis told MPs he would regard it as a failure if the UK had to stay in the customs union beyond the end of 2020, when the Brexit transition period ends. 

Mr Davis said he hoped the first new trade deal would be ready to sign the day on the first day of 2021 – something that would be impossible if the UK stayed in the customs union.

However, he acknowledged that MPs would be able to amend a vote on the final Brexit deal this autumn – potentially allowing pro-Remain MPs to send Mrs May back to the negotiating table.

Mr Davis did not rule out the possibility, but questioned how much force the Government would have in negotiations if it was ‘sent back with its tail between its legs by Parliament’.

Labour MP Stephen Kinnock warned there would be a constitutional crisis if the Government ignored an instruction from Parliament.

But Mr Davis told MPs: ‘I’m not going to speculate on amendments that have not even yet been laid, let alone been passed by the House.’


When Britain stays in a custom union with Brussels (the European Commissions headquarters is pictured) is one of the main points of Brexit contention

The customs union and single market have emerged as crucial battlegrounds in the struggle over Brexit.

The customs arrangements could decide the fate of the overall deal – as the UK has already said it will ensure there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. 

Here are the main options for what could happen after Britain leaves the bloc.

Staying in the EU single market

A Norway-style arrangement would be the deepest possible without formally staying in the EU.

The single market rules out tariffs, quotas or taxes on trade, and guarantees free movement of goods, services, capital and – controversially – people.

It also seeks to harmonise rules on packaging, safety and standards. 

Staying in the EU customs union

The customs union allows EU states to exchange goods without tariffs, and impose common tariffs on imports from outside the bloc.

But they also prevent countries from striking deals outside the union.

Theresa May has repeatedly made clear that the UK will be leaving the customs union.

Forging a new customs union

Some MPs and the Labour leadership have raised the idea of creating a new customs union with the EU.

This could be looser than the existing arrangements, but still allow tariff free trade with the bloc. 

However, many Eurosceptics believe it is impossible to be in a union without hampering the UK’s ability to strike trade deals elsewhere.

They also complain that it would mean accepting the EU’s ‘protectionist’ tariffs against other parts of the world in areas like agriculture.

The PM has also ruled out this option. 

A customs partnership

Less formal than a union, this proposal would seek to cherry pick the elements that facilitate tariff-free trade – without binding the UK’s hands when it comes to deals with other countries.

One possibility could be keeping the UK and EU connected for trade in goods, but allowing divergence for the services sector.

The partnership option was floated by the government in a position paper last year.

‘Highly streamlined’ customs

This scenario would be a ‘bare minimum’ customs arrangement between the EU and UK.

New technology would be deployed alongside a simple agreement to minimise friction.

But there are fears that this could hit trade, and it is unclear how the system would work with a ‘soft’ Irish border. 

What are the options for the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic after Brexit?

Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker agreed the outline of a divorce deal in December

Theresa May and the EU effectively fudged the Irish border issue in the Brexit divorce deal before Christmas.

But the commitments to leave the EU customs union, keep a soft border, and avoid divisions within the UK were always going to need reconciling at some stage. Currently 110million journeys take place across the border every year.

All sides in the negotiations insist they want to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, but their ideas for how the issues should be solved are very different.

If they fail to strike a deal it could mean a hard border on the island – which could potentially put the Good Friday Agreement at risk.

The agreement – struck in 1998 after years of tense negotiations and a series of failed ceasefires – brought to an end decades of the Troubles.

More than 3,500 people died in the ‘low level war’ that saw British Army checkpoints manning the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. 

Both London and Dublin fear reinstalling a hard border – whether by checkpoints or other means – would raise tensions and provoke a renewal of extremism or even violence if people and goods were not able to freely cross.

The DUP – which opposed the Good Friday Agreement – is determined to maintain Northern Ireland inside the UK at all costs, while also insisting it wants an open border. 

The UK blueprint:

The PM has made clear her favoured outcome for Brexit is a deep free trade deal with the EU.

The UK side has set out two options for how the border could look.

One would see a highly streamlined customs arrangement, using a combination of technology and goodwill to minimise the checks on trade.

There would be no entry or exit declarations for goods at the border, while ‘advanced’ IT and trusted trader schemes would remove the need for vehicles to be stopped.

Boris Johnson has suggested that a slightly ‘harder’ border might be acceptable, as long as it was invisible and did not inhibit flow of people and goods.

However, critics say that cameras to read number plates would constitute physical infrastructure and be unacceptable.

The second option has been described as a customs partnership, which would see the UK collect tariffs on behalf of the EU – along with its own tariffs for goods heading into the wider British market.

However, this option has been causing deep disquiet among Brexiteers who regard it as experimental. They fear it could become indistinguishable from actual membership of the customs union, and might collapse.

Brussels has dismissed both options as ‘Narnia’ – insisting no-one has shown how they can work with the UK outside an EU customs union.

The EU blueprint:

The divorce deal set out a ‘fallback’ option under which the UK would maintain ‘full alignment’ with enough rules of the customs union and single market to prevent a hard border and protect the Good Friday Agreement.

The inclusion of this clause, at the demand of Ireland, almost wrecked the deal until Mrs May added a commitment that there would also be full alignment between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. 

But the EU has now translated this option into a legal text – and hardened it further to make clear Northern Ireland would be fully within the EU customs union.

Mrs May says no Prime Minister could ever agree to such terms, as they would undermine the constitutional integrity of the UK.

A hard border:

Neither side wants a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. 

But they appear to be locked in a cyclical dispute, with each adamant the other’s solutions are impossible to accept.

If there is no deal and the UK and EU reverts to basic World Trade Organisation (WTO) relationship, theoretically there would need to be physical border posts with customs checks on vehicles and goods.

That could prove catastrophic for the Good Friday Agreement, with fears terrorists would resurface and the cycle of violence escalate.

Many Brexiteers have suggested Britain could simply refuse to erect a hard border – and dare the EU to put up their own fences. 


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