Kevin O’Rourke: Britain wakes up to the reality of free trade

Ambiguous wording of any future Brexit deal cannot change the fact that free-trade areas always and necessarily involve border checks

With the unravelling of an agreed form of wording on the Irish Border the deadline for phase one of the Brexit talks is looming ever closer. Cliff Taylor reports

Following the dramatic events of this week, the British public is finally having to come to grips with some basic trade-policy distinctions which can no longer be ignored by either the House of Commons or the UK government. Chief among these distinctions are those between free-trade areas, customs unions, and the European single market. All three concepts are well illustrated by the history of Anglo-Irish trade relations since independence.

As Peter Leary’s recent book, Unapproved Routes, reminds us, the Irish Free State left the UK customs union in 1923. Customs posts immediately appeared along the Irish Border. Nor did they disappear with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Area Agreement in 1965. The UK abolished most tariffs on Irish exports, while Ireland started reducing tariffs on UK imports. But while Ireland had agreed to reduce its tariffs on imports of British goods, it had not agreed to reduce its tariffs on imports from elsewhere. How could one distinguish between imports of British and Australian lamb, for example?

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