Brexit position paper: future customs arrangements

David Davis

The Brexit Ministry is pushing out a batch of position papers this week in the hopes of convincing people that the UK government knows what it wants from Brexit negotiations. The first to be released is the paper on ‘Future customs arrangements.’ This paper considers possible replacements for the UK’s membership of the EU customs union and promises to think long and hard about the land border in Ireland. As with most Brexit publications it is a bit light on detail, preferring aspiration to substance. Here’s the highlights.

The paper states two options the government is keen on for future UK-EU trade: a highly streamlined customs arrangement or a new customs partnership with the EU.

In the first option, there would be a sort of half-in, half out agreement with the EU supported by technology or, to quote the paper, “innovative facilitations.” This brings to mind the ‘innovative jams‘ that disgraced ex-Defence Minister, and now Minister for Dodgy Trade Deals, Liam Fox had previously promoted as the saviour of British trade post-Brexit. We don’t know what new innovations will be required but we have faith they will be provided.

The second proposal is a new bilateral customs union, but one where the UK presumably doesn’t pay into the EU and it doesn’t abide by the EU’s collective bargaining approach to international trade deals and where we don’t have to accept Single Market regulations. This is the cherry picking that the EU’s negotiators have stated time and again will not be acceptable. It’s also an example of how Brexit could double bureaucracy because it would require the UK to monitor EU customs law and replicate it in the UK – perhaps alongside the UK’s own laws as some sort of double-stream or as a replacement for the UK’s laws in a weird abdication of sovereignty that would surely upset the ardent Brexiteers.

As ever, the Brexit Ministry highlights just how good the UK currently is at this sort of thing. “The UK starts from a strong position. The World Bank’s Logistics Performance Index 2016 ranked the UK fifth in the world for the efficiency of its customs services” the paper cries. A quick look at the LPI survey methodology shows that a significant chunk of our happy trade partners are within the EU and benefitting from the UK’s membership of the EU’s customs union… you know, that thing we’re about to rend asunder then stick back together with that innovative jam.

This is quite a common conceit from the Brexit Ministry, a bit like when they say our universities will survive Brexit because they’re world class… and they ignore the cries from over 80% of researchers that say the EU is a large part of what makes our institutions world class.

Regardless of what these techno-fuelled facilitations look like, the UK government is clear that the aim with these customs negotiations is 1) good trade with the EU 2) no problems in Northern Ireland 3) great trade deals with non-EU countries.

It’s a little funny that trade with other countries makes it onto this short list of priorities for UK-EU customs agreements but it really highlights the ideology behind Brexit. The UK government is prepared to duplicate bureaucracy, pay fees to access programs, accept regulations and loss of influence in the region, so long as we get to do fast and loose trade deals with other countries – and by that, read “The USA”.

The position paper mentions global trade generally and specifically mentions China but when the government’s poet laureates spend such obvious time and effort on framing the phrase “old friends and new allies” you can be assured that it’s not talking about India (Theresa May won’t accept their requests for skilled worker visas) and nor are we going to be selling financial services to China’s burgeoning middle class.

Nope, it’s straight off to the USA to reignite a TTIP-style deal that Liam Fox has already proven he won’t let Parliament have a say on. The government’s defence against the Gina Miller case rested on the idea that trade deals don’t require debate and Fox is a big fan of this type of ‘executive action.’ The position paper talks about the importance of trade transparency but not, democratic accountability for making the trade deals in the first place.

For those worried about a US-UK trade deal selling out our NHS and public services, the position paper  specifically says the government “will also ensure that decisions about how public services including the NHS are delivered for UK citizens, are made by UK governments and not by our trade partners.” This will be cold comfort to campaigners that feel the UK government is the one destroying the NHS or to those that fear the threat to public healthcare is not so much about NHS policy but more about whether or not we let vampiric US mega-companies in the front door to begin with.

That pretty much summarises this ‘position paper.’ The remainder is mostly ‘cake and eat it‘ rhetoric of the sort we’ve all come to expect from the Brexit Ministry. The series of position papers are reportedly meant to be read together and that may help explain why Northern Ireland isn’t given much detail beyond an admission the solution will have to be ‘imaginative and flexible’ and the reader is pointed towards a future paper that will (?) deal with Northern Ireland more generally.




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