The Customs Union has become a contentious issue in the Brexit debate, but leaving it is a must; it’s a red line that cannot be crossed
The post-referendum “phoney war” should have been the beginning of an open, honest and exciting debate about what Britain’s post-Brexit future should look like and what our negotiating strategy should be. Instead, this time has been wasted as Remainers continue to fight the referendum debate; they should have tried to shape how we leave but still too much time is being spent on whether we should leave at all.
I fully expected, and gleefully anticipated, a lively debate on both how we should manage our transition from EU Member State to independent nation state, and how we could exploit the advantages of our newfound freedoms. I expected discussions about the bottom up redesign of our policies for trade, immigration, fisheries, agriculture and foreign affairs. I anticipated a debate on how to engage as an independent player in the plethora of international organisations in which we are currently bound by the EU common position. I looked forward to, naively it seems, a developing excitement about rebuilding Britain, reforming the way we are governed and helping to reinvigorate the global trading system.
Instead, one of the central debates of recent weeks has been on whether or not we should leave the Customs Union. Until very recently I never considered that this would become a point of discussion. The case is already closed; we must leave the Customs Union to regain control of our trade policy, remaining within it is not an option because it would violate the democratic mandate of the referendum.
Let’s be clear; It can be reasonably argued that because the “Leave” movement isn’t a political party, and the referendum result was simply an instruction to leave the EU and nothing more, many details are therefore open to debate.
However, any arrangement that sees us remaining in the Customs Union is not Brexit; it is the worst of all worlds and defeats the object. It would be like being an EU member but with very few of the rights or privileges of membership.
There is a lot of confusion over this issue, and indeed it is complex, but it can be boiled down to one very simple point, which I pointed out in my latest Telegraph article:
“One of the main consequences, and disadvantages, of the Customs Union is that the EU negotiates as a single entity in international trade agreements. Thus, the Commission negotiates on our behalf and we must wait for all 28 member states to agree to ratify before the deal is concluded and we can reap the benefits.”
To regain control of our trade policy, we must leave the Customs Union. There is no minority in the Leave campaign arguing for membership of the Customs Union, there are no fringe Brexit campaigns arguing this case either; it quite simply is not even a grey area. The need to regain control of our trade policy was one of the main arguments of every collective Leave campaign and every individual Leave campaigner. We can therefore say, with confidence, that the 52% who voted to Leave did so with the justified expectation that leaving the EU entailed taking back control of our trade policy.
If we are still represented by the EU in the multitude of international organisations related to trade, and are not able to pursue and negotiate our own trade agreements; then nobody can reasonably argue that we have satisfied the Leave mandate.
Remaining in the Customs Union was never on the Brexit agenda, it cannot have escaped the notice of anyone that it was barely discussed during the referendum campaign. It was never on the table; it has only been placed there very recently by Remainers, it is the latest attempt to problematise leaving, a major component in the strategy of a growing resistance to Brexit.
Brexiteers have been distracted of late by the High Court ruling that parliament must vote on triggering Article 50. Although the motives of Gina Miller and her allies are clear (they want to stop prevent Britain leaving the EU) having a lively parliamentary debate and a vote on Article 50 is very healthy and democratic (parliament takes back control!) and was always extremely unlikely to lead to a vote against.
MP’s who voted Remain, and still don’t want to leave, will have their say but will ultimately the majority will respect the referendum result at this point. They are compelled by the need to show that they are respecting democracy, and because many of them represent areas where the majority voted to Leave. Few would be so brazen as to blatantly disrespect the will of the electorate by voting against it at the first opportunity; no, the unrepentant Remainers will play the long game.
The sudden noise around the Customs Union is a warning shot; many more spanners will be thrown in the works. The Remain campaign will continue by stealth, and as the negotiations conclude we may witness a full resurgence of the Europhile movement and a concerted effort to subvert the whole process.
First of all, we have the legal case in the Supreme Court that could lead to a decision on whether Article 50 is revocable. Nicola Sturgeon could choose to instruct the Lord Advocate to seek a reference to the Luxembourg court to get a definitive answer to that question. If the decision is made that Article 50 is revocable; the devolved Assemblies and allied Remainers could effectively gain a veto on Brexit. Voting against the exit settlement would, in effect, revoke Article 50 notification and see us remain in the EU.
Another prime opportunity to derail the process will come with the Great Repeal Bill; just like with any other legislation facing ingrained resistance, opponents will seek to put the brakes on by making amendments thereby tying the Government’s hand and potentially sabotaging Brexit negotiations.
Zealous Remainers are reorganising and will grow in strength. They will fight this every step of the way. Now they argue for remaining in the Customs Union, next they will make more demands, eventually their vision will be little different from being in the EU; finally, they will go all out to stop Brexit altogether.
The referendum was round one; but the war isn’t over.
Ben is the Conservatives for Liberty Director of Online Communications. Follow him on Twitter: @TheScepticIsle
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty