Is May’s ‘third way’ just another Brexit fantasy?

British PM attempts to bridge Tory divisions with hybrid solution to customs problem

Theresa May: her  proposal has already been described as “unworkable” by her own Brexit secretary David Davis. Photograph:   Reuters

Theresa May: her proposal has already been described as “unworkable” by her own Brexit secretary David Davis. Photograph: Reuters

 

With Theresa May’s “third way” Brexit customs plan already meeting flak from inside and outside her government and two more reports here highlighting the level of disruption, this time to Irish imports, from the UK’s impending EU departure, it’s safe to say we’re not an inch closer to understanding what Brexit means.

What’s most remarkable about the UK government’s long-awaited white paper on its future trading relationship with the EU is that London seems to be starting from scratch nearly one year after its original customs plans were published.

May’s plan, designed to bridge seemingly insurmountable Tory divisions, is a hybrid of the previous “maximum facilitation” and “customs partnership” solutions, which were shot down on practical and political grounds.

It involves using sophisticated tracking devices on goods coming into the UK to determine where they ultimately end up and whether UK or EU tariffs apply. But is the technology for such an operation out there?

When the UK’s former chief EU diplomat Sir Ivan Rogers gave evidence to the Commons home affairs committee, he poured cold water on the “max fac” option by suggesting the technology to clear hundreds of thousands of tonnes of cargo between countries did not yet exist.

But Brexiteers demure, citing high-tech systems in ports like Felixstowe in Suffolk, which can apparently clear 360,000-ton vessels within 15 minutes using specialist software. May’s “facilitated customs arrangement” – as it is called – relies on tracking systems identifying the final destination of 96 per cent of all goods arriving in UK.

But just think of this. There are more Border crossings on this island alone than there are between the EU and all the countries to the east of it – 275 in total compared to 137 land border crossings to the east of the EU. Could technology really monitor trade movements between our two jurisdictions?

May’s proposal has already been described as “unworkable” by her own Brexit secretary David Davis on the grounds that Brussels would not countenance a third-party country, as the UK will be, policing its borders and collecting tariffs on its behalf.