Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Having our cake and eating it: why we need the customs union

It is time we faced up to the necessity of the customs union, writes Alison McGovern

‘Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!’ shouts the Wizard of Oz, after being exposed as a charlatan and snake-oil salesman. Given the current debate around leaving the customs union, he might as well have been played by Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, or any of the other duplicitous Brexit-cheerleaders.

Today there is a parliamentary debate about supporting customs union membership, but any vote will be non-binding and the government are trying to just pretend it is not happening. The real crunch point will likely come later, with amendments to the trade and customs bills. Regardless, the real focus here should be on one thing, and one thing only: what promises were made to people about what Brexit would mean, and does the looming reality match up to it?

Remember that it was David Davis, the man responsible for negotiating Brexit, who promised a deal delivering the ‘exact same benefits’ as we have now in terms of trade. It was Leave campaigners like former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers who claimed voting for Brexit would not require any changes at the Irish border. It was the current Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, who pledged that Brexit would mean slashing red tape and bureaucracy for businesses.

It is no exaggeration to say that leaving the customs union would achieve the exact opposite of each of these promises. It will add new barriers to trade with Europe, it will mean the re-imposition of a hard border on the island of Ireland, and it will massively increase the amount of bureaucracy, red tape and paperwork for businesses to wade through. As with so many of the promises made by Leave campaigners, they melt upon first contact with reality. And yet, whenever anyone points out the disparities between the Brexit that was described during the referendum and the one that is being delivered, the Leave campaigners scream betrayal.

📖 The transition agreement is nothing more than a series of broken promises

The reality is that Brexiters are caught in a trap of their own creation. They want all the benefits of being part of the single market and the customs union without any of the accompanying responsibilities. They refuse to countenance any potential downsides of their half-baked plans for fear the public will turn against them. Rather than having a sensible, grownup conversation about how the customs union has facilitated frictionless trade within the European Union, and what the downsides of leaving will be, they present red herrings, false choices and straw man arguments. Worried about a hard border reappearing in Northern Ireland? No problem, technology that does not exist will solve it. Doubtful that the United Kingdom will be able to get better trade deals on its own rather than as part of the most powerful trading bloc in the world? Shut up, you are just a Remoaner talking down the country. Concerned about what extra costs, delays and bureaucracy will mean for UK businesses and their supply chains? Not to worry, everything will be fine because the EU want to sell us prosecco, or something.

No one is immune from this pigheaded insistence on denying reality. That is how we end up with the bizarre spectacle of Paul Drechsler, the president of the CBI, a man representing thousands of employers in this country, having to tell a serving cabinet minister over Twitter that leaving the customs union is a terrible idea, and the vast majority of businesses do not want what this government is selling.

To quote The Wizard of Oz once again: we’re not in Kansas anymore.


Alison McGovern MP is chair of Progress and supporter of Open Britain. She tweets @Alison_McGovern



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Alison McGovern MP

is chair of Progress

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