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Department for Exiting the European Union

Part of Ministry of Defence – in the House of Commons at 8:56 pm on 26th February 2018.

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Chair, Committee on Exiting the European Union 8:56 pm, 26th February 2018

The Prosecco and BMW car analysis of our future economic relationship with the European Union—we heard a lot of it during the referendum—simply fails to understand the sheer complexity of the task that we now face. The customs union, in one sense, is the easy bit. When it comes to our future relationship with the internal market and the whole question of divergence, which we may hear more about from the Prime Minister when she speaks on Friday, I can tell the House, following our discussions in Brussels a week ago with the Select Committee—colleagues who were there can confirm this—that the moment the Government start to talk about divergence, two things happen with the European Union.

First, the EU asks, “Divergence where? How? What will it mean? How will we manage the process?” It has experience of the Swiss-type deal, which is basically 60 deals, which it loathes because of the complexity of the task and the need to continue to negotiate and, in effect, renegotiate with Switzerland how the relationship will work. The second issue that the EU raises is this: it is afraid that we will use freedom to gain the competitive advantage of being able to sail through the door that the Government are asking it to leave open for us when it comes to trading goods and services.

We are now learning that after the simplistic promises—“You can have your cake and eat it”, “There will be a deep and special partnership”, and all that sort of stuff—we have come to the end of that approach to Brexit. Now is the time for choices. The Government will make their choice, and we will have to live with the consequences, but it will be very apparent to Ministers—not least, I am sure, from the exchange of views around that room in Chequers—that there are trade-offs to be made, depending on what it is that we want.

I have argued passionately for remaining in a customs union not only because I think that it is in the best interests of British business, but because of the question of Northern Ireland. Believe you me, if we are to meet the very high bar that the Government have rightly set for maintaining an open border—the Select Committee made this point in its report at the end of last year—I do not see how that can be reconciled with the Government’s current policy of leaving the customs union and the single market. What we need now are clarity and certainty, and we need them with speed. Above all, however, we need the right policies for the economic future of the United Kingdom.