An Irish backstop and a customs union will never be the Brexit that people voted for
There is an attitude among Remainers that regards the EU’s customs union as a comforting thing. It is, they seem to think, a benign economic version of Nato, keeping us safely inside a warm embrace.
Of course it is nothing of the kind. Any benefits of “frictionless” trade with the EU are completely negated by its own protectionist barriers. Goods sold within the EU are 20 per cent more expensive on average than market prices outside, because tariff walls allow internal producers to bump up their prices.
Free trade with the rest of the world, conversely, would not only reduce the prices of non-European goods by removing these tariffs. It would also force European sellers to reduce their prices to compete with global competitors, so providing cheaper produce for all consumers.
It was for this reason that the Conservative manifesto last June – securing the highest number of votes for 25 years – clearly promised that the UK would “no longer be a member of the single market or customs union.” For the good of every citizen in the country and the integrity of our democratic institutions, that promise must be delivered.
It is now reported that the UK’s proposed plans for the so-called “Irish backstop” – whereby, if no trade deal is achieved, we will maintain “full alignment” with whatever EU regulations necessary to maintain a soft border in Ireland – put no time limit on this option, and do not permit the UK to leave it unilaterally.
This is dangerous, because if there is no indication of when the backstop would come to an end, the EU has no incentive to discuss a trade deal with us and every incentive to insist on a bad deal.
In fact a “hard border” between the UK and Ireland is a practical impossibility. A border already exists between the two countries in currency, VAT, excise duties and security, and it is a tax point, not an inspection point.
The Government’s ambition to avoid a hard border is perfectly achievable with its favoured solution of “maximum facilitation”. An expanded Authorised Economic Operator scheme can allow daily trade to continue seamlessly. GPS technology eliminates the need for any physical infrastructure, including cameras or number-plate recognition.
The truth is that the issue of the Irish border is overblown, and being seized upon by those desperate to remain in the customs union. Max Fac would remove any need to do so.
Labour’s position on our membership has vacillated wildly since the referendum. Their 2017 manifesto was ambiguous and in February the shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer called for “a” customs union which would “do the work of the current customs union”. Now they are pushing a muddled amendment which would keep us inside.
But Labour MPs should bear in mind the effects that its protectionist measures have on the poorest households as they vote next week.
And all MPs should remember that we cannot deliver any of the economic benefits of Brexit without leaving the customs union, freeing ourselves to forge our own trade relationships and embracing the principles of free trade.