Thursday 26 April 2018

The Custmoms Union: a small step

Today the House of Commons debates a motion that the UK should stay in the EU Customs Union, even if we actually leave the EU.  Staying in the customs union will have two massive advantages and one small one. The big ones are:
  • there will be no need for customs checks at the entry and exit ports (Dover/Calais; Folkstone/Boulogne etc ) so no costly delays, massive lorry-parks, tailbacks on the M20
  • blessedly, no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
and the little one is:
  • the UK's exporters will not have to pay the common external tariff (customs duty) on goods to be sold in the EU.  Although not exactly negligible, this is a small factor compared with  inconvenience and cost of extra paperwork, inspections and delays.
The Brexiteers' arguments against staying in the Customs Union  are:
  • the UK would still be subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice  (ECJ) for the resolution of trade disputes;.
  • the UK would be unable to negotiate its own trade deals with countries outside the EU but would have to accpt the collective deals negotiated by the EU.
 I really fail to understand the Brexiteers' obsession with the ECJ.  Any trade deal, be it with the US, Brazil, India, China or wherever, will involved a  some system of independent arbitration in the event of a dispute.  If not the ECJ it will be something similar (and, of course, while we're still members of the EU we have representation on the ECJ.)

The second objection is a Brexiteer fantasy (Yesterday the Guardian called it a "sham").  It is a nonsense to think that the UK, with our relatively small market of about 65 million people, could negotiate better deals than the mighty EU with its market nearly ten times the size. And if we did, it would undoubtedly be on the foreigners' terms (chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-fed beef from the US, for example.)

So I look forward to a vote in favour of this motion today. It will not bring down the government because they are playing obscure parliamentary games.  The Tories have imposed only a two line whip, so Tory MPs don't need to be there to vote against  if they can find something better to do, and it is a "motion" not legislation.

Nevertheless a vote in favour will be a significant step in exposing the folly of the government's ideological and unnecessary "Hard Brexit" position and will be an opportunity for MPs to tihnk for themselves and vote for what they believe rather than toe the party line.

Of course, remaining in the Customs Union is a small step compared with remaining in the Single Market, which incudes most services (very important to Britain).  For the practical advantages to businesses of the single Market see this powerful expose of the difficulties of being outside the Single market as recounted by this small manufacturer.a Natalie Milton

Of course, the most sensible thing to do would be to forget about Brexit, apologise for the time we've wasted, remain in the EU and get on with tackling our real problems (inequality, housing, tax evasion and avoidance, health service, racism,  and impotent local government, to name but some.)


  1. Any trade deal, be it with the US, Brazil, India, China or wherever, will involved a some system of independent arbitration in the event of a dispute

    Yes; the whole point is that the ECJ is not independent, it exists in order to be on the EU's side. A trade deal with the EU would need 'some system of independent arbitration', so it can't be the ECJ, which isn't independent.

    It is a nonsense to think that the UK, with our relatively small market of about 65 million people, could negotiate better deals than the mighty EU with its market nearly ten times the size

    It's not about market size: it's about that we want free trade, and the EU wants protectionism. That's what stops the EU from negotiating trade deals, and why we could, for example, pretty quickly have a trade deal with Australia that abolished tariffs on Ozzie wine because we don't have to care that they will then undercut the French vineyards.

    And we can open out markets to…

    chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-fed beef from the US

    … which sound yummy to me, as well as cheap, and I will be buying them as soon as they are available.

    (If you don't like the sound of them, on the other hand, you are welcome to keep paying premium prices for EU beef. Just don't try to impose your own preferences on everyone else.)

    remaining in the Customs Union is a small step compared with remaining in the Single Market

    Ideally we would remain in the single market (but not the single government) but leave the customs union. This isn't impossible: Switzerland already exists in this state.

  2. (The thing that gets me is that there seem to be people who honestly believe that if we leave the EU without a trade deal, then all trade between the EU and the UK will instantly stop, no food will be imported, and people will starve. It's as if they've internalised the Brussels disease that everything that happens must be regulated, and that if something isn't regulated, it can't happen. Whereas of course the reality is that trade happens between individuals and companies regardless of whether a trade agreement exists (hence all that lamb from New Zealand), and regulation should be the exception, but in place only after all other options have failed, rather than the rule.)

    1. Will take up your points in more detail later, but I've just received this from Global Justice Now:

      "These results follow a national poll showing that a whopping 82% of Brits would rather not have a trade deal with the US than sacrifice food standards. There are no excuses now. We’ve made sure Mr Fox knows what the public thinks of his plans for a trade deal with the US."

      Clearly you are in a minority regarding a trade deal with the US.

      You can read the full story at:

    2. Thanks for your derailed response. I can see you feel passionately about this: you should be in the government - - - perhaps you are in the government.
      To take up your points one by one:
      1. Whilst we remain in the EU the ECJ acts on behalf of the members, which includes us. Of course we do not always get our own way - that is what shared sovereignty is all about. (We could do with more of it, in avoiding armed conflicts, for example). Of course, if we leave, the ECJ will continue to act in the interests of the members. We shall be in the same position as any non-member trading with the EU: that’s the Brexit choice.
      2. It IS about market size: see my earlier post about Gravity Equation : Briefly, the amount of trade between economies varies directly with size and indirectly with distance.
      We had all his business abut trading with the Commonwealth in the 1975 Referendum. I think the Commonwealth is a valuable organisation but it is not a viable trade bloc.
      3. The consumer free-for –all- you recommend was all very well in the days when people traded horses, pigs and food crops which most understood, and caveat emptor. Today’s traded products are so complex that we need consumer protection, for our health and safety as well as the producers’’
      4. Yes, of course we shall continue to trade with the EU if we leave , but it will be much more difficult . Do read the Natalie Milton link (in the original post): it’s an eye-opener.

    3. [Your link to the survey story doesn't work, which is a pity, as I would be interested to check the methodology, eg, that it wasn't just a survey of Guardian readers, or that the questions weren't phrased in such a way as to make the US imports sound unappetising. but more to the point, what people say they will do and what they will actually do are often different: how many of those 82% will stick to their principles and refuse to buy US beef even when it's sitting there next to the EU stuff, but half the price?]

      Of course, if we leave, the ECJ will continue to act in the interests of the members

      So in other words, you admit that the ECJ would not be an impartial independent arbitrator in the even of a dispute between the UK and the EU over the terms of the trade deal? And as you write, 'Any trade deal,[…] will involved a some system of independent arbitration in the event of a dispute'. As, as you have just admitted, the ECJ cannot be independent, some other arbitration device will be needed.


      It IS about market size

      Market size is not irrelevant, but it's not everything, either. If we rock up to, say, India, and say 'we want to do a total free trade deal where we open our markets to each other, no other conditions', and the EU comes along and says, 'We want to do a free trade deal but we have to make sure your wine doesn't undercut French wine, we will import raw textiles but not finished garments because otherwise you could do them cheaper than the Italians, [continue for 290 pages of protectionist guff]…'

      which trade deal do you think will get done first?

      Today’s traded products are so complex that we need consumer protection, for our health and safety as well as the producers

      Goods (and services) have to be accurately advertised, as described, and suitable for the purpose for which they were sold. If not, then the sellers get sued. What more do we need?

      I have read the Natalie Milton link, but that mainly seems to be someone boo-hooing that they can't compete with Chinese and American products unless they have the benefit of being inside the EU's protectionist tariff wall. Well, frankly, if you can't compete on a level playing field then you shouldn't be in the business. Either produce goods which are better enough in quality that people will pay the extra cost, or accept that you don't deserve the business. Don't hide behind a tariff wall which does nothing but protect those who deserve to go under.

      But there are other small business stories, too, showing how the EU is not good for them. There's the drinks company which had to, at massive expense, change its entire bottling operation because a shift in EU regulations mean that what they were producing was now classified as 'wine', and therefore could only be sold in bottles of certain sizes: I think they were selling in 70cl bottles (like spirits) rather than 75cl.

      But — and here's the kicker — they were a small local operation that didn't export at all. So what possible reason is there for them having to abide by rules designed to harmonise trade between countries? I means, fine, have the EU say that if they are selling into the EU market they have to be packaged according to EU standards (which will be the case after we leave, of course) but what on Earth should an EU regulation apply to a company whic produces in the UK, sells in the UK, and never goes near the EU?

    4. Re the 82%, try this link:

    5. Ah, you have been duplicitous. The question as reported at was about lowering food safety standards.

      I would be against lowering food safety standards too. As would anyone sensible.

      But as US beef and chlorine-washed chicken are perfectly safe (especially the latter — how much cleaner can you get than something that's been washed in chlorine?!) the question of lowering food safety standards doesn't arise, and those 82% should be fine with a USA trade deal that doesn't involve lowering food safety standards.

    6. [Un?]like, Amber Rudd I can honestly say that if I was duplicitous it was inadvertent. I think the point about chlorine-washed chickens is that if their carcasses are washed in choline this it enables them to be reared in less hygienic conditions, which is not good for the chickens. Hormone-fed beef, I believe, grow to quickly and become ungainly and unhappy. Beef stuffed with anti-biotics means, if we consume them, that our own bodies become resistant to antibiotics, which is bad for us if we're poorly. Not all, perhaps, food safety, at least not in the short run, but not very pleasant either, and not the sorts of things a civilised society should encourage.

    7. Well, if that's what you think, then we can have the cheap US meat on the shelf next to the expensive EU meat from happy chickens, label them clearly, and if people agree with you then they will buy the expensive stuff, and people will stop producing the cheap stuff because nobody buys it.

      But if people keep buying the cheap stuff, then they must care more about saving their money than ungainly cows, and if that's the case then it's not fair to force them to pay more for something they don't care about.

      Isn't that how it's supposed to work? What's wrong with that?

    8. (And yes, indeed, it looks like it was the IPPR who were duplicitous first in putting 'food standards' in their headline and burying that it was about safety standards in the text, and you and the Independent are only guilty of taking something at face value because it seemed to confirm your own world-view and not looking deeper to see whether it was actually true or not. )