EU Customs Union

Part of Petition - Tenancy of ST Michael’S Gate, Parnwell – in the House of Commons at 7:30 pm on 2nd November 2016.

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Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union 7:30 pm, 2nd November 2016

I think it important to engage with arguments on both sides of this debate. The key thing is to secure the UK national interest, so before we take a decision, we will want to listen very carefully to the arguments for leaving the customs union and the arguments for staying in it.

I think we can all agree that the issue has numerous aspects. The hon. Lady speaks with considerable experience of complex economic issues, having been a Treasury fast-streamer serving on the Public Accounts Committee and the Treasury Committee, and a former Minister. She will appreciate that, as the Prime Minister said in her reply the other day, making a full assessment of the options of a customs union is more complex than it might seem when first described to the public.

First, it is important to understand exactly what a customs union is and is not. It is an arrangement that relates to trade in goods; it does not cover trade in services or free movement of capital or people. To facilitate trade, a customs union removes tariffs and customs controls on goods moving between its members. While services are not directly included— they are not subject to either tariffs or customs controls—they have become increasingly embedded in goods production, so a customs union could indirectly affect trade in services industries. For example, in parallel to exporting an aircraft engine, an engineering firm might also provide maintenance services; or in parallel to exporting cars, an automotive firm might provide financial services.

To function properly, a customs union must have a common external tariff, applied equally by all members of the union. That supports the free circulation of goods within the customs union, preventing trade diversion by ensuring that no one trading with the members of the union can be given preferential access to any individual members relative to the others. In the case of the European Union, in practice, we have chosen to make a reality of the common external tariff through the common commercial policy under which the European Commission negotiates on trade on the United Kingdom’s behalf, and in that way sets the common external tariff. In the case of members of the EU and the EU’s customs union, 80% of the tariffs that are collected by member states on imports from non-EU countries are paid into the EU budget, with member states retaining just the remaining 20% to cover collection costs. The UK collected £3.1 billion in tariffs on non-EU imports in the financial year 2015-16.

However, a customs union is only one of the many ways in which countries have sought to minimise the impact of customs procedures and support the free flow of goods. There are numerous examples around the world in which co-operation between customs authorities has helped to reduce the costs of customs processes at the border, short of a customs union. Even in the case of the European Union, the customs union is only part of an approach that also focuses on strengthening systems and processes on the ground. For example, the vast majority of customs declarations in the UK are submitted electronically and cleared rapidly, with only a small proportion experiencing delays—for example, when risk assessment indicates that compliance or enforcement checks are required at the border.

Norway has been involved in customs co-operation with Sweden and Finland, both of which are EU member states and are therefore in the EU customs union, as they have been since the 1960s. Norway has an agreement with the EU to mutually recognise each other’s schemes to impose less onerous checks on exporting firms with secure supply chains. It sits, as an observer, on some of the EU’s committees that discuss customs issues. Notwithstanding the issues raised by the hon. Lady, and although our Prime Minister has made clear that we are seeking not an off-the-shelf solution but a UK solution, it is important to note the collaborative agreements that exist in other countries. Switzerland and the EU have an agreement that recognises the equivalence of security checks at their external borders, and waives the need to make pre-departure and pre-arrival declarations. If we look more widely, we see that the United States and Canada also co-operate closely on customs issues, including schemes to expedite customs procedures for firms with secure supply chains and collaborative arrangements for operations at the border.