As the hard-right Tories push persistently for a hardest possible “no deal” Brexit, Theresa May is faced with the impossible task of keeping both the UK and her party together. It is becoming increasingly clear May’s vision is one that will leave the UK outside both the single market and customs union with a deal that will leave the UK immeasurably worse off. Not just financially, although the UK will lose half of its economic growth over the next fifteen years, the Good Friday Agreement is under threat and as the Tory Government threatens to close down trade with Europe, the most left behind parts of the UK such as Sunderland will see less and less investment.
If and when the UK leaves the customs union, the Government will have the ability to set tariffs on certain goods and, under WTO rules, the UK must set the same tariff for every other country. The EU is currently negotiating a free trade deal with Japan which the UK will not reap the benefits of, whilst the New Zealand Government has made clear their intention to sign trade deals with a post-Brexit Britain. This means goods coming to Japan to Munich will be cheaper than those going to Manchester, so the UK must ensure customs checks are carried out to prevent companies importing goods to the UK via the EU and avoiding tariffs. Customs checks will be necessary at airports, ferry terminals and the UK’s two borders. It’s crazy, I know, but the island nation has two borders! The first can be found in Calais, where most trucks coming from Europe will arrive, and the second in Northern Ireland. Airports and ferry terminals are used to dealing with customs checks, they have done for a number of years for goods coming from outside the EU, but Calais and the Northern Irish border throw up two very different challenges which must be dealt with separately.
“Smart Border 2.0” is the most ridiculous, bizarre and extreme form of economic self-harm this country has inflicted on itself in decades and yes, I do include that vote. A smart border is a phrase bandied about so much by politicians who don’t really understand it that the phrase is now as meaningless as “encryption” after Amber Rudd discovered WhatsApp. A smart border is a very vague term for a hard border which uses technology to speed up movement and reduce waiting times. They are, objectively, good things and a huge improvement on a traditional hard border, however a smart border would reflect a major step back from the UK’s current arrangement with France. A common comparison is to the smart border between Norway and Sweden; Norway is outside the EU and the customs union whilst Sweden is a member of both. Except for the major difference in size. Calais is a port town which sees four times the hourly traffic the entire Swedish/Norwegian border sees. And their border is over a thousand miles long, the longest land border on the continent. Norway is also a member of the single market meaning no Norwegian or European goods face any tariffs crossing the border while people can move freely. Not only would a smart border be incredibly slower than the current arrangement between France and the UK, it will only be possible and practical inside the single market. To maintain the current status of the border, the UK’s only option is to remain a member of both the single market and the customs union, not either or.
The Good Friday Agreement was accepted by voters across the island of Ireland 20 years ago, this agreement took years of work from multiple British and Irish governments to end thirty years of Troubles. Part of the agreement guaranteed no border between the UK and Ireland — people and goods can move freely between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Leaving the customs union will end this and customs checks on the Irish border (a hard border) puts the future of GFA in jeopardy. However, there would be a relatively simple solution; the UK Government could put the customs checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain instead of on the island of Ireland. While the Good Friday Agreement remains, unionists would be left unhappy and the DUP promised to withdraw their support for the Conservative minority government. No, there cannot be a hard border in Ireland or the Irish Sea. Theresa May’s second alternative isn’t much better, regulatory alignment between Britain and the EU won’t prevent the hard border. Is peace in Northern Ireland really worth sacrificing for this government’s short term political goals? Outside the customs union, we can make our own free trade deals with other countries, such as growing major economies like India and China (who’ve already said no free trade deal after Brexit). Doesn’t sound like we’re missing out on that much after all.
True, Liam Fox will be out of a job and the UK won’t be able to negotiate its own trade deals but leaving the customs union and single market comes with so many complexities that it’s not a practical option. The price of Brexit must not be the end of the Good Friday Agreement. To paraphrase Martin Whitfield MP, for a Brexit deal that keeps British jobs, keeps peace in Northern Ireland and keeps trade free with Europe, the UK must choose to remain a member of both the customs union and the single market to avoid the economic catastrophe that a hard Brexit would present.