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The Customs Union

By Brendan Chilton

Debate is taking place within the Labour and Trade Union movement on the question of the United Kingdom’s membership of the Customs Union. Some regard ongoing membership as a ‘soft’ Brexit that can be justified owing to the fact the Conservatives lost their majority in the 2017 general election.  

But those advocating continued membership of the Customs Union are in effect giving no regard to the outcome of the referendum and are essentially seeking to render the United Kingdom as a half member of the European Union. Moreover the situation is far worse as the United Kingdom would be a half member but with absolutely no influence in the future development of the Customs Union and with no mechanism to exert change under its current form. Instead of wishing to remain buckled to the Customs Union, Labour ought to be bold and true to its internationalist values and firmly declare its opposition to any attempt to keep our country in that union.

        The Customs Union is a structure that facilitates free trade between members of the Customs Union. It is a system that ensures all members have common import duties on goods from outside the Union, but none on goods produced and sold within the Union. To this end it is a block that protects other members of the block. Members of the Customs Union share similar standards of economic development and citizens enjoy similar standards of living. The Customs Union prohibits external markets, such as Commonwealth nations, having the same access to British markets as European markets do. The Customs Union is a Trump style wall restricting access to and from Europe, closing us off to emerging markets in the developing world.  How individuals within the Labour Party who claim to be internationalists can defend such a model is deeply questionable. Why do we seek to prioritize European markets over African, Caribbean or Asian markets? Surely it should be the mission of the Labour movement to tear down the Customs wall of the EU and work to trade with the workers all over the world, and not just prioritise one of the wealthiest parts of the world.

        There exists a Common External Tariff placed on goods coming into the European Union, the highest of which are on food, clothing and footwear.  This means that produce from countries outside the European Union immediately cost more to European and British consumers.  It is the poorest in our society, those whom the Labour Party is meant to defend and uphold that suffer most as a result of Customs Union membership.  The Customs Union protects the richest producers in Europe against the poorest producers in the developing world.  The most famous example of this injustice is that of Coffee production. Germany, despite not growing a single coffee bean is the second largest exporter of roasted coffee because EU tariffs are placed on roasted coffee. Coffee beans have no tariff and so are imported, roasted in Germany and then exported for a larger profit for the German economy. Developing economies are subsequently unable to grow processing industries. How anyone who believes in the distribution of wealth and opportunity can support ongoing membership of this Customs Union that directly discriminates against the poorest in the world and the poorest in our society and at the same time claim to be a socialist is beyond comprehension. Surely the international hope of the British Labour movement is to lift the poorest the world over to a higher standard and not hold them back as we are doing at present.

        The referendum was a vote to take back control of our laws, borders, trade and money. To remain a member of the Customs Union after we leave the European Union would provide a two-fingered salute to the seventeen million people who voted to leave. The largest democratic mandate in the history of the United Kingdom will have been torn to shreds. Barry Gardiner, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade stated that remaining in the Customs Union would reduce the United Kingdom to a position of a “vassal state.” This is something the Labour movement simply could not do. Our party that placed Churchill in power in 1940, who provided a strong Defence post-war, who led the charge for decolonization and the freedom of men the world over could not in our own circumstances abdicate the responsibility of determining our prosperity and trade policy.  Labour should embrace the opportunity to determine our own trading arrangements. A future Labour government outside the Customs Union could indeed place environmental protections, human rights, animal rights, workers rights and social justice at the heart of our global trading effort. Once again Labour could be at the forefront of creating a better and more just international trading system that projects British interests while embracing the needs of others.

        Michel Barnier has set out his demands to the United Kingdom for the transition period. One of these demands included the proposed clause that, “the United Kingdom may not become bound by international agreements entered into it its own capacity.” So during the transition, the United Kingdom will not be able to enter into trading arrangements with non-EU member states unless authorized by the EU. How can democrats support a position where this would become the norm? If those who support Customs Union membership get their way, once we leave the European Union we will not be able to set our own Trade policy. This means that should the EU embark on a treaty similar to TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) that would place our NHS, environmental standards, workers rights and environmental protections at risk, a future Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn would be able to do absolutely nothing to prevent it coming into force.  The next Labour government will have the mandate to implement its radical economic and social agenda and cannot be restricted by the European Union Single Market or its Customs Union in doing so. Why are some in the Labour movement wishing to bind future Labour governments to a set of institutions that may operate in direct contrast to the wishes of the British people and their elected Labour government?

        It will not escape the attention of Labour members that many of those supporting our membership of the Customs Union are the same Members of Parliament who less than a year ago sought to remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. Jeremy was re-elected as Leader with a bigger majority and a stronger mandate. Now is the time for the party to unite behind the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and not to seek to use the Brexit negotiations to resurrect the difficulties the party faced in 2016. Brexit aside, the Conservative Party is in total disarray and it is possible that there could be a general election soon. It is now more likely than ever that Labour will form the next government. Our organization, radical manifesto and huge membership are ready for the fight. In the 2017 general election Labour fought on a clean-Brexit manifesto and deprived the Tories of a majority. Let us now put the divisions of the referendum behind us, push forward with Brexit and provide an imaginative, proud and radical manifesto for the United Kingdom after Brexit. Labour is always at its best when it is bold. If we unite for the country around a vision of an independent, just and strong Britain confident in its place in the world as a force for peace and prosperity then nothing will stand in our way and change will come.

Labour Leave shares a number of viewpoints from external commentators, both Leave and Remain, without necessarily endorsing any of the viewpoints therein.


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