This blog’s track record on Brexit remains solid. A while ago I predicted that the UK would opt to stay in the (or a) customs union with the EU. That hasn’t happened yet, but the tectonic plates are slowly but surely moving that way. Meanwhile opponents of the idea are trying to undermine it by confusing people about what it amounts to, and the media, even the BBC, aren’t helping.
First: what is the difference between soft and hard Brexit? A hard Brexit means a complete break with EU institutions and trading with the EU either on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms or through a tailored trade deal, such as the one the EU has negotiated with Canada. You might call these the Japan and Canada options respectively. A soft Brexit means remaining part of some EU institutions, without being a full member. It boils down to two main options: the Norway option or the Turkey option. There is technically a third: the Swiss option, but EU officials regard this approach as a failure, and are likely to prefer a hard Brexit.
The Norway option is given support by this week’s Economist. It means being part of the the Single Market, but not the customs union. This Norway does though membership of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which includes Iceland and Lichtenstein as well. This excludes agriculture and fisheries. It means accepting EU directives as far as most trade goes, and the “four freedoms” – goods, services, capital and labour. It has been given a bad press by both sides of the EU debate. Brexiteers say that it turns the country into a vassal state because it has to accept regulations without a right of veto, and only limited consultation. Remainers say much to the same thing, so why leave? The Economist valiantly makes the case nevertheless. It would be the least disruptive approach for British business, while giving the country significant new rights not available to EU members. Apart from agriculture and fisheries policy, this includes doing trade deals with other countries; Iceland has made a deal with China, for example.
Norway does pay significant sums into the EU budget, though – a bit of a flash-point for Britons. But this is not as bad as it looks: it is mostly aid to Eastern European countries, which is separate from other EU aid, and Norway has a lot of say over where it goes. So it is actually politically quite useful.
So might this be the elegant compromise that brings the two sides together without entirely satisfying them? There are two big problems. The first is border controls. Not being in the EU customs union means that goods have to be checked as they cross the border, as happens between Norway and Sweden. Since one of the UK’s aims is a frictionless border in Ireland in particular (helpful in Gibraltar too), the Norway option would fail. This is one of the toughest issues emerging in the whole process (as predicted from the start by this blog). Brexiteers, who tend to deal in broad visions and not detail, can’t stand this instance of the tail wagging the dog. They hope that if Britain says that there will be no checks on goods coming into Northern Ireland, it will force the EU to reciprocate. But that turns out to be more difficult than it sounds – unilaterally waiving tariffs creates issue under WTO rules – as well as being reckless with the Irish peace process.
But there is an even bigger problem with the Norway option: the four freedoms. Or rather one of them: labour. Claims by Brexiteers that more than a minority of their voters wanted a total break with the EU are hard to sustain: the Leave campaign deliberately obfuscated the issue by using Norway as an example of what Brexit might mean. But a claim that those voters wanted complete control over the movement of labour into the country is perfectly credible. The Economist argues that there is more Britain can do to manage incoming EU workers more strictly within the Single Market. I don’t think that washes.
The Turkey option addresses both these problems. There are no customs checks at the border, and there is no free movement of labour. The lack of customs checks means that most of those complex supply chains that cross the border between the UK and the rest of the EU should suffer reduced, and manageable, disruption. Agriculture and fisheries can be excluded (as are services, most likely – but this is where the Single Market works less well anyway). What’s not to like? It means that doing trade deals with non EU countries can only happen for those goods excluded from the customs union (agriculture and services most likely). The more extreme, neoliberal branch of the Brexit movement, well represented in the Conservative Party, has set great store by doing such deals. And yet to most critics of Brexit this has always looked to be the weakest part of the Brexit case. These other countries are far away, drive hard bargains, and Britain’s negotiating position is weak. There is little evidence that the voters are that bothered. Nobody could accuse Turkey of being a vassal state to the EU, so why should they be?
And so the Turkey option looks the most viable form of soft Brexit. In a speech today the Labour leader is taking a step towards it by advocating a customs union with the EU. However he is blurring the issue by suggesting that he wants to be part of the Single Market too. And yet he wants exemptions to suit his agenda, especially on state aid and free movement. The EU will never wear that because of the political difficulties it would create within the union. I would go as far as to say that it is dishonest of Mr Corbyn even to suggest it. It would be much clearer to go straight for a variation of the Turkey option. Still it has served to put the customs union idea on the agenda, and presents the possibility of linking up Tory soft-Brexit advocates, who have a much clearer grip of the key issues.
And what of the government? It has rejected the idea of a customs union out of hand. But this is just words, meant to placate hard-Brexit advocates within Tory ranks. What the government says it wants is what it has called “Canada plus plus plus”. That is almost as dishonest as Mr Corbyn’s Single Market minus. The government wants to stay integrated in some sectors but not others. This looks like the sort of cherry-picking the EU so dislikes. But it could be an intermediate negotiating step towards a Turkey-like solution, even if they try to avoid the words “customs union”. I believe this may be the game plan of Theresa May, the prime minster, and David Davis, her pragmatic Brexit Secretary. Whether they have the political skills to pull that off is open to question, though.
Meanwhile supporters of hard Brexit are trying to turn the public against the Turkey solution by conflating it with the Norway one. This includes Australia’s undiplomatic ambassador, Alexander Downer, to his great discredit, on the radio last night. This allows them to suggest it means accepting free movement of labour, for example. They also suggest that it means that the UK cannot do trade deals with other countries: that is not true either, though the scope of those deals would be restrained. Britain could import US chlorinated chicken and Australian wheat tariff-free if it wants to, as agriculture is not in scope.
For now the politicians are exercised about a potential vote in parliament over the customs union. Expect the government to defer this until the actual shape of its deal with the EU becomes clear. Something like a customs union with the EU is on its way. It is exactly the sort of compromise the country should be aiming at.