Rather than a temporary "backstop", what we’re actually looking at is a Customs and Regulatory Alignment Periodby Jonathan Portes / June 8, 2018 / Leave a comment
So, after an unedifying 24 hours of political theatre (more Joe Orton than Shakespeare) the government has published its proposal for a “temporary customs arrangement” to serve as a “backstop” in the event that no permanent solution is in place at the end of the transition period in December 2020.
Why all the fuss about a temporary arrangement that everyone hopes will never even have to be used? Of course, the answer is that almost every word in quotes above means the exact opposite of what it says.
The backstop that isn’t a backstop
First, the backstop is not a backstop. It’s the default option. Even if the UK could make up its mind tomorrow what sort of permanent customs arrangement it wants, there isn’t any realistic prospect of it being in place by December 2020. And even if it was, none of the options currently on the table would solve the problem of the Northern Irish border—which is the point of the “backstop.”
Second, despite the fact that the government’s proposal uses the word “temporary” no less than 22 times, it’s likely to be anything but.
When the Prime Minister claims that “this… is in no way the Government’s intended or desired future customs arrangement, and in any case the temporary nature means that it cannot be,” it’s pretty obvious she’s protesting too much.
In fact, the “temporary” arrangement will be enshrined in formal, legally binding text, incorporated into the Withdrawal Agreement—unlike the government’s “intended or desired” arrangements, which won’t.
It’s not just about customs
Going beyond the legal niceties, think about the practicalities. Governments and businesses, both here and in the EU, would plan on the basis of an ongoing customs union—and they would be quite happy to do so because it would mean a minimum of disruptive change.
Meanwhile, discussions on the future relationship are likely to take years. It’s not clear that any future UK government have much incentive to invest time, money and political capital in something that will both be very expensive and very unpopular with business. The EU27 certainly won’t.
Third, it’s not just about customs. For a start, the paper also refers to VAT. And, as many have pointed out, regulatory alignment for goods and especially agriculture is at least…