A group of pro-European Union lawmakers have tabled an amendment in an attempt to force the government to keep the U.K. in the customs union after Brexit, a move that will delight business but add to divisions within Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party.
Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Ken Clarke and former Business Minister Anna Soubry are proposing an amendment to the government’s Taxation (Cross-Border Trade) Bill seeking to add a clause stating: “It shall be a negotiating objective of Her Majesty’s Government in negotiations on the matters specified in subsection (2) to maintain the United Kingdom’s participation in the EU Customs Union.” They are backed by Labour lawmakers including Chuka Umunna and Chris Leslie.
The Cabinet has yet to decide what kind of trading relationship it wants with the EU after the split and Brexit-backing Trade Secretary Liam Fox said in an interview on Friday that staying in any customs union with the bloc would be unacceptable.
Membership of the customs union goes to the heart of the Brexit debate as it sets those arguing for continuity and business interests against those who put sovereignty and the narrative of an independent free-trading nation first. The Confederation of British Industry has called for the U.K. to remain in the customs union and the opposition Labour Party has ambiguously backed a similar arrangement.
“If you look at the maths, the number of Tory mutineers and then you add some, if they’re able to get their act together with Labour, then mathematically there’s a majority for this” in Parliament, said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “It’s beginning to get to crunch point here, and there’s only so long that people who are worried about the direction things are heading in are going to sit on their hands.”
Another round of Brexit talks gets under way next week and the EU is eager to hear from London what kind of trade deal it wants. The EU says that Britain’s own red lines reduce the options on the table.
The Financial Times reported on Friday that May’s officials are considering keeping Britain in a new customs union, and preserving the common external tariff arrangement that would bar the U.K. from setting its own tariffs to facilitate trade further afield. May’s spokesman, Max Blain, told reporters in London that her position remains to leave the customs union, but that she has “an open mind” on future customs arrangements with the EU.
The customs union would go some way to resolving the question of the Irish border, and would allow the U.K. to keep its red line of controlling immigration. Turkey has a customs union with the EU but isn’t in the bloc or the single market.
Bale said Pro-EU lawmakers will have to push for membership of “a” customs union, rather than “the” customs union if they want success.
“They worry about being accused of staying in what we’ve got already, so it would have to be rebranded,” he said by phone. “A rebrand from “the” to “a” might work, but whether it will work form the point of view of the EU is another matter.”
The date for debate on the amendments has yet to be announced, according to the Parliament website.
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