EU Customs Union

Part of Petition - Tenancy of ST Michael’S Gate, Parnwell – in the House of Commons at 7:16 pm on 2nd November 2016.

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Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Labour, Bishop Auckland 7:16 pm, 2nd November 2016

I am pleased to have the opportunity to have a short debate on the UK’s membership of the customs union.

My constituents voted to leave the European Union, largely because of what they see as uncontrolled immigration, but also because of the slightly bossy tendency of some of the EU institutions, which I think can be taken as a rejection of the European Court of Justice. However, they did not foresee all the consequences of the vote, partly because a number of false promises were made—most notably that there would be £350 million extra every week for the NHS, and also that no jobs would be at risk.

In the circumstances, it is reasonable of the Prime Minister to work on the assumption that part of her mandate is to end the free movement of citizens from the EU to the UK. That, in itself, does not amount to a negotiating strategy. The problem is that we are hearing wildly different things from different members of the Government. The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has just reassured Nissan and it is going ahead with significant inward investment. I welcome that. Meanwhile, the Foreign Secretary still seems to believe that it will be easy and straightforward to do free trade deals “very rapidly indeed”.

The Government continue to say that they will not provide a running commentary on the negotiations. I know they claim that that is because they want to maintain confidentiality, but it appears from the outside as if it is because they are finding it difficult to agree among themselves on what should be done.

What I find alarming is the Government’s refusal to answer parliamentary questions. I asked the Minister a written parliamentary question about the Government’s policy on the customs union. He gave a rather opaque answer. I can live with that, but I have also put down a large number of written questions that ask factual things, such as how much we export, what the value of it is and what would be covered by the rules of origin were we to leave the customs union. On those questions, I also received the answer, “We will not give a running commentary.” That is why I felt it necessary to have a debate and explore these issues in more detail. I am alarmed by this situation, because the risk is that decisions will be taken on the basis of rhetoric not facts and on the basis of ideology not analysis.

An intelligent negotiating strategy needs to meet the public’s expectations, to be based on a hard-headed assessment of the national interest and to be deliverable. With that in mind, the Treasury Committee visited Berlin and Rome in September to find out what some of our counterparts might think. I am sorry to say that Brexit is not at the top of the in-tray for the other EU member states. They all see it in the context of their domestic political worries. Angela Merkel is looking over her shoulder at Alternative für Deutschland; Hollande is worried about Le Pen; Matteo Renzi is worried about Movimento 5 Stelle. Probably only the Irish take Brexit as seriously as we do. Over and over again we heard the same word: precedent. There should be no reward for exiting the EU, and no precedents must be set.

I conclude from that that if controlling immigration is going to be part of the British position and we are to move to a more skills-based approach for managing migration, our EU partners are going to say that we cannot remain members of the single market. However, there has not been so much attention paid to our membership of the customs union, which I am beginning to think may be more important, especially if we want manufacturing industry to thrive in this country.

It is worth recalling the history. The customs unions was established in 1968. It is what we joined in 1973, and what the public affirmed with the referendum in 1975. It is what most people call the Common Market. Unlike high levels of immigration or the ECJ, it is rather popular with the British public.

The shadow Chancellor has rather pejoratively described the Government’s approach as a “bankers’ Brexit”. I know why he has done that. We must base what we are doing on some facts. I remind the House that we export more goods—some £285 billion-worth—than we do services, the figure for which is £226 billion. That is a ratio of 56:44. This is important. At the moment, we have a common external tariff, goods move freely within the EU and the Commission has competence for external trade negotiations. The customs union is not the same thing as the single market. Norway is in the single market but outside the customs union, whereas Turkey is in the customs union and outside the single market.

It is also worth recalling that the export of goods into the European Union comprises 48% of our exports. The EU is our biggest partner. Exports to Europe bring 3.3 million jobs. The next most significant partner is America, with 17% of our exports, and way down the numbers is China, our third biggest trading partner, with just 4%, or one 10th of the significance of our European exports. So what would happen if we were to leave the customs union?