New option for an UK-EU customs deal in Brexit White Paper is unlikely to succeed

The Prime Minister is due to discuss a third customs ‘model’ with ministers on Friday (6 July 2018) after two earlier proposals sparked Cabinet divisions at home.

Even before winning Cabinet support in the UK, it has been declared unworkable and unacceptable in Brussels.

It has been known for some time that Theresa May favours a ‘customs partnership’ with Brussels with Britain collecting EU import tariffs in order to allow uninterrupted onward movement of goods into Europe.

No details about the proposal have been revealed – but failure to secure universal support and approval risks a ‘no-deal’ Brexit on 29 March 2019.

At the June European Council summit, EU leaders made a series of comments about indecision and divisions in London.

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, said: “I don’t have to lecture Theresa May, but I would like our British friends to make clear their position…we cannot live with a split Cabinet.  They have to say what they want – and we will respond to that.”

European Council leader Donald Tusk added: “There is a great deal of work ahead, and the most difficult tasks are still unresolved.  If we want to reach a deal in October, we need quick progress.  This is the last call to lay the cards on the table.”

These sentiments have been widely echoed by Prime Ministers of the EU members and, with other priorities looming across the Union, patience is running out with the British.

So, with calls for clarity and certainty growing – the British Chambers of Commerce being only the latest trade body to voice concern – what are the chances of the proposal making it to a White Paper, getting Parliamentary approval and becoming the central plank of Brexit negotiations with Europe before the October EU Summit – the last and final opportunity to reach agreement on a deal?

UK government sources have refused to comment on the draft white paper.  A spokesman for Brexit Secretary David Davis also declined to comment – but noted Davis referring to the draft as: “our most significant publication on the EU since the referendum”. A Downing Street spokesman said: “There is going to be a lot of speculation between now and Chequers.

It seems that the EU has been given some insight – although whether this flowed from Cabinet Secretary, Olly Robbins, leaving his notes on Eurostar when returning from a Brussels meeting last week seems unlikely – The paperwork, which featured Mr Robbins’s handwriting, was found by a retired teacher who alerted officials at the Brexit Department.  Whatever, Senior Brussels officials have made it clear that they would not accept the UK’s demands after reading a draft of the Government’s Brexit white paper.  A European Union inside source said that the paper will, once again, leave the UK open to accusations of wanting to “have its cake and eat it”.

The consequences of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit are looming – bringing political, social and economic consequences that will impact all citizens, businesses and governments in Europe and the UK in new and unexpected ways that will ripple out and grow for decades to come.

We cannot emphasise enough the need for clarity – and sooner rather than later.  The crux of the matter seems – as time runs out to negotiate and finalise a bespoke deal – to be an increasingly stark choice:  the whole of the U.K. must remain in the single market and customs union; or split-up the UK to meet the one universally agreed ‘red line’ – no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.