Henry Newman

It’s time to end the discussion on the customs union

This never-ending circular discussion on customs unions is painful, particularly because the question should have been settled during the referendum. It’s now nearly two years since the vote to Leave the EU in June 2016. But we’ve spent months and months rehashing endlessly the exact same points. That’s profoundly damaging.

Rewind back to this time two years ago. The leaders of the Leave campaign were talking about the possibility of the UK signing new trade deals after Brexit with the US, Japan, China, Australia and New Zealand – they were talking of life outside a Customs Union. The other side said we would have more negotiating weight as a big bloc of countries.

Watch back Michael Gove’s iconic interview with Faisal Islam from before the referendum and he talks of ‘taking back control’ of trade policy and having someone decide our trade with Britain’s interests in mind and not the EU28’s. No one can credibly watch that and think the plan was to stay in a customs union.

During the referendum, we endlessly discussed whether leaving the EU could allow the UK to boost trade with rest of world, or to reduce tariffs to help consumers, and so on. Or not. The assumption was clearly that we were out of a customs union. It was so obvious it wasn’t stated. And when the Turkish model – a (partial) customs union between the EU and a non-member – was presented as an option it was explicitly rejected.

You may look back at the referendum and think people misunderstood the arguments made then. But that is fundamentally a critique of the democratic process. For what it’s worth, I don’t recall any other political event in my life which got so many people arguing about policy.

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