The Brexit battleground

Theresa May faces powerful opposing pressures over the customs union. Emily Hohler reports.


Theresa May: heading for another U-turn?
(Image credit: Copyright (c) 2018 Shutterstock. No use without permission.)

Like the Terminator, the "battle over post-Brexit customs unions refuses to die", says Faisal Islam on the Sky website. And you can see why people are struggling to keep track of the "increasingly Byzantine discussions on this issue", says The Daily Telegraph. In last year's election manifesto, the Tories promised to leave the customs union. Labour, until recently, agreed. The Commons has "twice voted decisively" to leave the customs union.

Yet last week, the House of Lords "resurrected" the subject, and yesterday MPs debated a Labour motion calling for "some sort of customs arrangement" post-Brexit. Although this vote is non-binding, next month there is a vote that will "force the government's hand if it is defeated". On Monday, Downing Street insisted there would be no U-turn and that the UK will "leave any form of customs union". But with "no guaranteed majority in the Commons", Theresa May cannot be sure of delivering.

May is missing a majority

She knows this. According to The Sunday Times, one of her team told a recent meeting that she and senior aides "will not be crying into our beer" if parliament forces the government's hand. This has enraged some Brexiteers, who "lined up to warn darkly against a betrayal that they said would precipitate a political crisis", says Jon Henley in The Guardian. Staying in a customs union would mean Britain could not strike its own trade deals. However, the reality is that business would like one, as would Labour, the Irish government (because it would solve the "pesky" border issue) and the EU.

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The politics are "fiendishly volatile and it's hard to predict how they will play out", says Sebastian Payne in the Financial Times. There are "no good options" for May. But one thing is clear: the EU has consistently said that, in the absence of other solutions, the UK will need to enter a new customs arrangement to maintain a soft border in Ireland. Without a deal on Ireland and the deadline is June "there will be no deal at all".

Remainers are hijacking the issue

This is ridiculous, says Melanie Phillips in The Times. The argument that a customs union is the only way to avoid the "insuperable problem" of a hard border with Northern Ireland is nonsense. "Britain sees no insuperable problem. Ireland sees no insuperable problem. The only people making it an insuperable problem are the EU and their Remainer echo-chamber."

Just keep in mind that Switzerland isn't a member of the customs union and sells five times as much to the EU per head as we do. What's more, its EU crossings are "frictionless and unmanned". The border issue has been hijacked by those wanting to "stymie Brexit or to force the UK into a deal which would not be in its national interest", says The Daily Telegraph. Nonetheless, we are "in danger of becoming mired in a definitional morass".

It should be possible to come up with workable solutions using modern technology such as barcode IDs that would ensure "seamless trade" as well as "the integrity of the border with the EU". These arrangements would only constitute a "hard border" if defined as such. "Conservative MPs were elected on a manifesto promising to leave the customs union and they cannot in all conscience now vote the other way." This isn't a "minor technical matter but goes to the heart of what Brexit is all about the freedom to make our own decisions on who we trade with, who crosses our borders and who sets our laws".

Emily Hohler

Emily has worked as a journalist for more than thirty years and was formerly Assistant Editor of MoneyWeek, which she helped launch in 2000. Prior to this, she was Deputy Features Editor of The Times and a Commissioning Editor for The Independent on Sunday and The Daily Telegraph. She has written for most of the national newspapers including The Times, the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, The Evening Standard and The Daily Mail, She interviewed celebrities weekly for The Sunday Telegraph and wrote a regular column for The Evening Standard. As Political Editor of MoneyWeek, Emily has covered subjects from Brexit to the Gaza war.

Aside from her writing, Emily trained as Nutritional Therapist following her son's diagnosis with Type 1 diabetes in 2011 and now works as a practitioner for Nature Doc, offering one-to-one consultations and running workshops in Oxfordshire.