Parliamentary pressure is building for a new customs partnership but this would not be viable for the long termby Aarti Shankar / April 24, 2018 / Leave a comment
Recent events have once again raised the possibility of the UK agreeing a customs union with the European Union after its withdrawal. A customs union is a legal framework under which countries remove tariffs and custom procedures on each other’s goods, and agree to impose the same tariffs on goods coming in from third countries. The UK is required to exit the EU Customs Union when it leaves the bloc, but the prime minister last year also ruled out striking a new customs union with the EU. Yet, despite reaffirming her position again this week, the possibility of a climb-down or defeat is growing.
Last week, the House of Lords voted by 348 to 225 in favour of a cross-party amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill that demands the government explain what steps it has taken to pursue a customs union with the EU. The wording of this amendment does not necessarily force a U-turn in the government’s strategy, but the overwhelming support in the Lords to keep the option of a customs union open creates new hurdles for the government (this is also only one of three heavy Brexit defeats the government has suffered in the Lords recently). The amendment will have to be put to MPs for a debate and a vote before this key piece of legislation can be passed. The outcome of a vote is hard to call, but the Conservatives’ weak position in the House of Commons could signal another significant defeat for the government.
Even if the PM manages to secure a victory on the Lords’ amendment, MPs will have another opportunity to alter the current negotiating strategy. Rebel Conservative MPs have tabled amendments to the Trade and Customs Bills that will make seeking a customs union with the EU a legal government objective. There are already signs that the government is concerned it could lose a vote on this issue—it has sought to delay the bills’ entry into the House of Commons, but it cannot postpone key Brexit legislation forever.
In order to force the issue, some chairs of the Commons’ select committees have secured a debate and a non-binding vote on the customs union issue on Thursday. Conservatives have dismissed the debate as a “piece of theatre,” while the government has made this a one-line whip—meaning…