It's time for Brexiters to support a customs union

Customs union: Time for Brexiters to think again
Customs union: Time for Brexiters to think again

by Christian Calgie

The customs union has gone from a barely-mentioned trading structure to an item of faith for Brexiters. Most supporters of leaving the EU now consider the idea we should remain in it something close to blasphemy. But in fact there are decent Brexit-based arguments for staying in.

We often hear Brexit-supporting MPs claim to be championing 'the will of the British people' as articulated in the 2016 referendum. But they rarely dig into what that actually entails. Because in reality it's MPs supporting a customs union who are accurately reflecting the vote.

The Leave side during the referendum had many disparate and differing voices, but there were a couple of core beliefs that almost every Brexit voter had in common. Polling conducted after the referendum showed very clearly why leave voters chose to divorce from the EU.


Take the word cloud above of Leave voters' concerns. Notice the total omission of the phrase 'free trade', or any variation of it, despite the topic's near-total domination of the Brexit debate ever since. You actually have to zoom in to even find the word (it's just above the dot of the 'i' in 'sovereignty').

This may be difficult for many Brexiters to stomach, given they've spent almost three years insisting they're the ones representing the will of the people, but the truth is a customs union would not be upsetting to ordinary Leave voters in the way it is to Brexit MPs and lobbyists.

Indeed, not only was free trade not a motivating factor for the Brexit vote, but Leave voters actively opposed it. When polled last year, it was revealed that Leave voters support introducing trade tariffs to protect British industries by a majority of +41, whereas Remain voters supported the proposition by only +10.

When we look at the practicalities of reaching a trade deal, Leave voters are equally unkeen at the prospect of sacrificing our current EU food standards in order to achieve a deal with the USA, with fewer than ten per cent of Leavers supporting such a policy.

I'm not a protectionist and I do not endorse this view of Leave voters. I think they're wrong. But let's be clear: This is what they think. I, like the majority of the country, am now sick of Brexit and above all else just want to see a deal passed. Give a customs unions would facilitate that deal and that it really doesn't interfere with the preferences voters expressed in the referendum, we should accept it.

But instead of pragmatism, we're seeing the opposite. MPs who used to be sanguine about a customs union now treat it as something akin to treachery. It was only in 2014 when David Davis, who now describes a customs union as 'imprisonment', said: "The primary aim is clear – to get as close as possible to the trading alliance, the common market we all voted for in 1975… My preference would be that we should remain within the customs union."

Remaining in a Customs Union also helps solve the main concern Brexiters have about the withdrawal agreement, by removing some of the need for the backstop. There would still be regulatory checks, of course, but we would be dealing with the aspects of the border issue which affect tariffs and country-of-origin checks. The great benefit of a customs union over the backstop is that the UK would be able to unilaterally leave anytime it wanted.

There is clearly a huge amount of common ground here, not just between Leavers and Remainers, but between Labour and Conservatives, and the electorate and parliament. It would break the deadlock, allow for a deal to passed by MPs with a convincing majority and honour the result of the referendum.

It is time for Brexiters to realise that the perfect Brexit does not exist. We cannot have everything on our wish list. We need to prioritise our desires based on what the public as a whole want.

Christian Calgie is a Leave voter, a final year student at the University of Hull and former parliamentary staffer. You can follow him on Twitter here.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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