Dear readers, I’m sure you’ll have appreciated my not adding to the Brexit confusion by giving my opinions here. I hope not to abuse that trust, though I feel I must mention the political discussions about us remaining in the EU Customs Union while essentially having left the EU. Whatever else happens in our relationship with the EU, we must not stay in the Customs Union after we have left the EU.
Here’s the argument played out in Parliament between Greg Hands MP and Ken Clarke MP. It’s worth listening to, or reading below. The most telling point is Greg Hands quote of American Senator Elizabeth Warren who said,
“If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.”
Hansard, 1st April 2019, EU: Withdrawal and Future Relationship (Motions)
Greg Hands (Chelsea and Fulham): I will begin by answering my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who said that he had not heard a single argument against a customs union. I credit him for staying for the whole debate, because I am going to give him plenty. He also said that I had been involved in a filibuster, but my contribution to the business of the House motion lasted for one minute and 13 seconds. That must be the shortest filibuster that there has ever been. I did once speak for one hour and 43 minutes on beer duty, but I do not think that one minute and 13 seconds really counts.
Why is a customs union a very bad idea? Broadly speaking, it would mean a huge loss of control over our economic policy, a decline in our foreign policy influence and a huge democratic deficit. Trade policy is not just about trade deals. It is about much more, which we would be handing over to the European Union without a seat at the table. There are tariffs, remedies and preferences as well as trade agreements, and these would all be given over. The House of Commons would abrogate its responsibility in relation to the UK’s trade policy. This is not Andorra or San Marino, which are currently in customs unions with the European Union. This is the world’s fifth largest economy.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe and I were on the same side in the referendum in 2016, so I am approaching this debate not as some kind of Brexiteer, but from the position of what makes sense for the UK’s trade policy. It makes no sense in our democracy for the House of Commons to vote tonight to hand over control of UK trade policy to Brussels. It would mean that a Maltese Commissioner, a Latvian MEP, a Portuguese Commissioner and a Slovene MEP would all have more say over UK trade policy than any elected politician, including the UK Prime Minister. That is not democratically sustainable, nor is it sustainable for our foreign policy.
My right hon. and learned Friend and I served in the Government together. At that time, I went into various rooms in foreign countries to speak to foreign Governments, so I know that trade is one of the aspects of leverage that we have. As a member of the European Union, the UK has influence on EU trade policy. That will obviously be gone when we are no longer a member, but under a customs union we would also have no influence over our own trade policy. We would be unable to have those conversations with the Government of the United States when we can say, “Well, if we can do this on some other area, we will have a word in Brussels on this particular trade issue.” All of that would be gone.
Mr Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way because I did not have time to give way to him in the end. I think he would acknowledge that it is a slight exaggeration to say that the British Government would have as little influence over deals being negotiated by the EU as a Latvian MEP if we moved into a customs union. As the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) just said, a big economy such as ours would add to the attractions of the EU market for a negotiating partner, so surely we should put in place a structure giving us far more consultation and involvement in the negotiations than my right hon. Friend is describing—not as good as now, but perfectly adequate.
Greg Hands: I think that is wishful thinking. The European Union is highly likely to prioritise the interests of its members versus the interests of non-members. That has always been the case. There are also serious arguments as to whether European Union rules would even allow a non-member to have an influence on EU trade policy. I am afraid that that is just a fact.
Entering into a customs union would be democratically unsustainable. Tariffs would be set by people who are not accountable to this House or to our constituents. That could be damaging for goods coming into the country, if those people were to set high tariffs on goods that our consumers would quite like access to. It could also happen the other way around with things such as trade remedies, as has been briefly mentioned. All these incredibly important aspects, including trade defences, would be handed over to Brussels. Now, Brussels might look after our trade remedies, but it would not give them priority. It would give the defence of its own industries—the fee-paying members of the European Union—priority over countries such as ours. This would mean that those all-important WTO investigations into, say, the ceramics industry, would be relegated below investigations to protect, for example, the German or Dutch steel industries.
On trade deals, the Turkey trap has been mentioned; this is about the asymmetry. The EU would offer access to our 65 million consumers without necessarily being able to achieve anything in return. I can guarantee that the UK asks would be the ones that would be dropped first, and that the UK items of defence would be the ones that the EU would concede first. It is inevitable because we would not be a fee-paying member of the European Union, so we would not be a priority.
Steve Brine (Winchester and Chandler’s Ford): I am listening very carefully to my right hon. Friend. I have a lot of respect for him, I have read his article and I have listened to every speech so far during today’s debate, so I understand what he does not want, which is a customs union. But bearing in mind that Parliament has yet to decide what it does want—and has rejected all other options, and the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement and political declaration—what is he arguing for?
Greg Hands: I continue to argue for the Prime Minister’s agreement, and that is where I think we should head. People talk about a compromise; that is the best compromise, and it is the one that my hon. Friend and I have both voted for.
I am astonished that the Labour Front Benchers are supporting the idea of handing over our trade policy. They were the people most passionately against TTIP, and other trade agreements, due to the access that it would supposedly have given foreign companies to the NHS. As it happens, I do not buy into that idea, but the idea that it will now be fine because we are handing over trade policy to the EU without having a seat at the table is for the birds. I think it was Senator Elizabeth Warren who said,
“If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.”
That is exactly what I fear will happen in an EU customs union if motion (C) is passed this evening.