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MPs should vote to stay in Customs Union as a Christmas 'gift' to Britain

3 min read

Just because Theresa May has interpreted Brexit to mean leaving the Customs Union doesn’t mean that she has a mandate to do so, says Chris Leslie MP.

It may be the last Brexit debate before the Christmas recess, but today’s Commons votes look set to present a straightforward question before MPs: should the UK remain in the Customs Union?

The referendum may have asked about leaving the EU, but it did not ask about whether we should continue to take part in the ‘common commercial policy and external tariff’. Just because Theresa May has interpreted Brexit to mean leaving the Customs Union doesn’t mean that she has a mandate to do so. That’s why my amendment (new clause 13) gives MPs the first chance for a clear vote on this.

If we mess up the way the UK border operates – including the Irish border, our ports and airports – then whole swathes of our businesses and economy face significant disruption. It is this customs question which brings the cliff-edge issue into sharp focus.

Half of our goods trade currently goes to the continent with only 1% of the 2.5million lorries passing through Dover ever checked at the border. The existing level of trust that we enjoy from ‘intra-community’ trade means we have a seamless, frictionless movement of goods, so much so that we don’t talk about ‘imports and exports’ but instead ‘arrivals and dispatches’. In turn thousands of manufacturers use the whole of Europe as a warehouse to bring in parts and inventory ‘just in time’, minimising costs of warehousing and all tariff-free.

But if we step outside the Customs Union, then hard border inspections at ports of exit and entry will create immense delays, blockages and force manufacturers to completely change their existing business models. There is no easy solution to this. It’s a particularly sensitive issue at the Irish border, and the fudge in wording in the Phase 1 Agreement simply kicks that can down the road.

We’ve come to expect the hard Brexiteers hallucinating about mythical far-flung trade deals somehow making up for the half of our trade that could be impaired with our immediate neighbours.

But it is less easy to understand why the official Labour Party policy sometimes sounds so coy on the clear benefits of staying part of the Customs Union. I hope that my colleagues will stand on the side of businesses and working people whose livelihoods could be jeopardised if we clog up the arteries of our economy with tariffs and pointless border checks. The TUC say this is the best option and it’s time Labour did so as well. Staying in the Customs Union is the only way to put jobs first, and MPs from all parties – including my party – should make this choice as their gift to the working people of Britain this Christmas.

Chris Leslie is Labour MP for Nottingham East and a member of the International Trade Select Committee

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