Tory Brexit strategy increasingly defined by disarray

Analysis: Internal debate over customs bears little relation to existing negotiations with EU

Britain’s prime minister Theresa May fields questions of the Brexit variety in the House of Commons during question time. Photograph: Parliamentary Recording Unit/Getty Images

Britain’s prime minister Theresa May fields questions of the Brexit variety in the House of Commons during question time. Photograph: Parliamentary Recording Unit/Getty Images

 

When the late Micheál Mac Liammóir performed a one-man show about the poets, playwrights, rebels and wits of Ireland, he called it I Must be Talking to my Friends. If Theresa May’s contortions over Britain’s future customs arrangements with the EU were a stage show, it might be called I Must be Talking to Myself.

During prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, Jeremy Corbyn teased her for“formally dividing her cabinet into rival camps – as if it needed doing” to consider two different customs models. Now, as her government prepares to publish a White Paper on Britain’s future relationship with the EU, there is talk of a third customs option called “max fac plus delay”.

The trouble with the British government’s internal debate over customs is that it is taking place in a parallel world from that of the actually existing negotiations with the EU.

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Contrary to Brexiteer claims, the EU side has not dismissed May’s preferred option of a customs partnership but it has raised a series of questions about it that suggest it would need major changes to be acceptable. And for Brussels, each of the elements of “max fac plus delay” raises its own issues.

“Fac” or facilitation is no problem because for the EU it amounts to no more than the kind of customs co-operation it operates with other non-EU countries. “Max” makes it more complicated because “maximum facilitation” suggests the kind of seamless trade enjoyed with Switzerland. For this, the EU would require regulatory alignment of goods so they conform with the rules of the single market.

And then there is “delay”. Advocates of “max fac plus delay” envisage an extended transition for customs beyond the agreed transition up to the end of 2020. For the EU, remaining in the customs union but leaving the single market will not allow for frictionless trade because border checks would still be required to deal with issues such as phytosanitary standards.

An elegant solution might be to extend the proposed backstop, which would allow Northern Ireland to remain in the customs union and parts of the single market after Brexit, to the whole of the United Kingdom. Brussels will resist such a move, however, on the basis that Northern Ireland is only being allowed to cherry-pick the single market because of its special circumstances.

Meanwhile, as the British government prepares a White Paper on its future relationship with the EU, Brussels is focused on a different goal at next month’s summit, achieving “sufficient progress” on a very specifically Irish backstop.

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