For some of those desperate for Britain to stay put in the EU, the Customs Union option functions as a handy obsession. Ministers, too, appear to be rallying behind this as a solution to the Brexit crisis, amid reports that dozens of senior Tories could vote for the UK to stay in a customs union in tonight's vote. They are making a big mistake.
There is no substantive case for irrevocably and permanently subjecting Britain to the European Union’s Customs Union. Rather than attempt to demonstrate how being tied to the Customs Union furthers the national interest, the best its proponents can do is pitch it as a tactical compromise. Being part of the Customs Union would mean effectively ceding the right to a foreign power to determine Britain’s trade and commercial policy in perpetuity. In setting tariffs on British imports, it would subject Brits to taxation without representation, the issue that sparked American independence. For both these reasons, binding Britain to the CU is an illegitimate and unsustainable state of affairs.
So why is the Customs Union the option that fails to go away? CU advocates cannot come to terms with the way the Brexit referendum fundamentally changed Britain’s relationship with the EU. The political case for Britain’s membership of the EU was that being at the top table and deciding EU policy enabled Britain, as Douglas Hurd used to say, to punch above its weight as full member of the world’s largest trading bloc. That case evaporated in the early hours of 24 th
It’s unsurprising that the Father of the House Kenneth Clarke, an advocate of Euro-federalism since he was barely out of his teens, is the lead sponsor of today’s indicative vote on the Customs Union. As Greg Hands points out, it is the worldly-wise – the MPs with supposedly foreign policy smarts – who are most drawn to the Customs Union; the Alistair Burts and Rory Stewarts of the Tory party.
The irony here is that the ERG members are the ones often criticised for being unrealistic. But in this opposition to the Customs Union, they have logic and principle on their side. There is a strong case for using Britain’s treaty rights under the EEA Agreement, as proposed by George Eustice, which many of them reject. That path has the virtue of prudence. But ERG members are right to argue that the Withdrawal Agreement is a horror. Sign it with crossed fingers, leave and then wear out the EU’s patience is the best case for it, a course fraught with peril, especially for a government as utterly dysfunctional as this one.
Yet it turns out that it is Conservative backers of the Customs Union who are having the hardest time accepting reality and overcoming the political trauma of Brexit. If Labour’s backing of the Customs Union means they win tonight’s vote against the majority of Tory MPs, locking Britain to the Customs Union is sure to be a major issue at the next election.
The 2016 referendum was won by Vote Leave’s argument to take back control. Taxation without representation is a tough sell. Labour will have a hard time explaining to voters why they were overruled. So will Conservative MPs who voted for the Customs Union. Brexit requires realism, not a refusal to accept the way in which Britain has changed.
Rupert Darwall is author of Green Tyranny, out this month in paperback