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Leaving the Eu: Customs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:07 pm on 16th May 2018.

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Photo of Paul Masterton Paul Masterton Conservative, East Renfrewshire 6:07 pm, 16th May 2018

It is with some regret that I speak in this debate, given the way in which Opposition Front Benchers have yet again chosen to abuse a parliamentary procedure to make a political point. I agree completely with my right hon. Friend Anna Soubry, who described this as a Mickey Mouse motion. It is such a waste of an Opposition day debate.

The customs arrangements after the UK leaves the EU will have both political and economic impacts. There have been discussions regarding many models—some that will make our borders invisible and others that will revolutionise the world. I appreciate this wave of technological enthusiasm, but it is important to remember that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee reported:

“We have…had no visibility of any technical solutions, anywhere in the world, beyond the aspirational, that would remove the need for physical infrastructure at the border.”

The Prime Minister has set out three key objectives for the future deep customs arrangement promised in the Conservative party manifesto. Those are the right options, and she should be given the space and flexibility to come up with the solution that works in the best interests of our nation. If she is not able to do so—if she is boxed in and undermined—the consequences will be particularly serious, especially for the island of Ireland.

One popular trope is that we should just walk away and unilaterally impose zero tariffs, and then there would be no need for a hard border—that we just decide to have nothing and that is it. But we are leaving the EU in 10 months and we need to get real. Having zero tariffs with a country does not automatically eliminate the need for border checks, and such a proposal would run into issues under article 39 of the WTO rules. In a no-deal situation, both the WTO rules, to which we would be subject, and the EU rules, to which the Irish Republic would be subject, would require the implementation of a de facto border.

Of course, tariffs are only part of the problem, and arguably they are a very minor one. Non-tariff barriers are far more important, and they are created by inadequately harmonised regulation. Rules of origin could render any tariff-free deal that we strike meaningless for many companies. Product quality-checking issues are far more critical, as they speak to issues such as public health, public safety and animal welfare.

Other examples of borders, such as those in Norway, Switzerland or even Canada, are completely useless for the UK situation. The Swiss border has a level of physical infrastructure for commercial freight that both sides in the negotiations have said that they do not want. Switzerland accepts the vast majority of the EU acquis on goods and it is also in Schengen which, last time I checked, is nobody’s policy position.

It is not possible to know precisely what customs arrangements will be necessary until after the future trading relationship has been determined, so we must let the Prime Minister get on with it. The Opposition are very able when it comes to talking about process—in fact they are obsessed with it to the exclusion of outcomes—but they will soon find out that what our constituents want and need are solutions to the real issues that we face, not just politicking and endless arguments about procedure.