Friday 17 August 2018

Symbolic vote by MPs backs UK staying in customs union

Vote defeat: UK Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Wire
Vote defeat: UK Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Wire
John Downing

John Downing

British MPs heaped pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May to change her hardline Brexit stance and keep the UK in a customs union with the European Union after Brexit.

In a symbolic move, the UK parliament approved an "effective customs union" with the EU after Brexit kicks in fully in 2021, following a transition period.

During the debate, Mrs May was warned that the Conservative Party would "not be forgiven for a generation" if it experiments with its post-Brexit trade policy failed. Nicky Morgan and Ken Clarke were among senior Tories who backed keeping the EU-UK customs union.

The vote of MPs followed on from a similar vote by the upper house of parliament, the Lords, just days ago.

The outcome offers some encouragement to the Irish Government, which is pressing for such an outcome to avoid a hard Border and preserve lucrative Irish-UK trade from being hit by tariffs and other constraints.

There have been increasing signals from Brussels in recent days that some form of customs union - whatever terminology is used - is the only way of achieving these aims.

Brussels diplomats insist that failure by Mrs May to move beyond her so-called "red lines" will end with a simple EU-UK trade deal post-Brexit. They say this will hit the British economy and also cause huge disruption for both parts of Ireland.

More staunch UK Brexiteers have made light of the outcome of both votes arguing that they are "not binding". Mrs May has insisted that Britain will proceed with Brexit involving leaving the EU single market and the customs union.

The Brexit supporters also pointed out that many pro-Brexit MPs had skipped yesterday's debate in the House of Commons, further undermining the authority of the outcome. But more neutral observers conceded that the result adds to pressure on the Mrs May's government to sort out a pragmatic and less idealistically driven future EU-UK economic relationship after Brexit.

Despite pressure from British business lobbyists, Mrs May's Conservative government insists Britain will leave the EU's customs union after it quits the bloc on March 29, 2019. Any changes will be put on hold until the transition period expires in December 2020.

Many involved in British business, especially those engaged in exports, want to retain a customs union to avoid tariffs and border checks. Britain has also promised it will not mount customs posts or other checks on the Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic after Brexit.

But in reality this will become an international frontier between the EU and the UK if some special arrangements are not agreed in advance.

Time is running short and the EU, in support of Dublin, is demanding agreement on the matter by an EU leaders' summit on June 28 and 29.

Irish Independent

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