Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Intelligent naivety


Slowly, the obsessives in Brexit's intellectual domain are arriving at a general consensus of understanding as to the features of the EU's Customs Union. It has been a frustrating journey, partly because certain people who claim to be expert on these issues did an inadequate job of informing the necessary players prior to the referendum result and so politically active circles have lagged behind ever since, hurrying attempts to grasp an important pillar of this debate. In this we thickos have been at pains to make up ground and inform others.

This blog has covered the basics. We know what a customs union is, we know that it restricts the independence of our trade policy but does not prevent the signing of all trade deals, we know that the Customs Union eliminates a Rules of Origin hurdle when exporting to the EU and we know that we leave it when we leave the EU (post-transition, presumably). Thankfully there is less to grapple with than the ignorance of our politicians appears to imply. There are, though, a couple of much smaller, residual issues left to tackle but I will save them for a later date.

The latest development in the national customs union debate is yesterday's announcement from Jeremy Corbyn. His party claims that it supports full membership of both the Single Market and Customs Union during the transition period and, beyond that, "a new comprehensive UK-EU customs union to ensure that there are no tariffs with Europe and to help avoid any need for a hard border in Northern Ireland. But we are also clear that the option of a new UK customs union with the EU would need to ensure the UK has a say in future trade deals."

There are quite a few claims here worth commenting on. To begin with, the guarantor of tariff-free trade across the EU and Single Market is Article 10 of the EEA Agreement. For the Efta/EEA states the omissions of agriculture and fisheries from the provisions of Article 10 are not inevitable. They are merely the result of domestic political policies, like vast disparities in agricultural subsidies leading to a notable imbalance in competitiveness. It is highly dubious for a politician to contend that the Customs Union ensures tariff-free market access.

On the point about the Irish border, Corbyn chose his words quite carefully. To "help" avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland rather emphasises the fact that a customs union alone does not bring about a frictionless Irish border. A customs union deals with an origin check, in which certificates and invoices are scanned by officials at customs posts, and enables one country to determine whether the relevant tariffs have been paid on goods. Customs unions do not deal with sanitary and phytosanitary checks, which require physical intervention, and other general checks on the standard of goods.

These controls are removed by the Single Market, the mechanism which enables us to enjoy a behind-the-border enforcement regime and the absence of Border Inspection Posts (BIPs) and Community Entry Points (CEPs), which accommodate controls against third countries on animal and plant products respectively. Typically these control points are merged into one facility, such as in the case of Dunkirk, whose expansion in 2009 was privately funded to the tune of almost £4m. Leaving the Single Market will mean agricultural exports and imports are diverted through these checkpoints.

In addition we have a VAT hurdle to tackle, which becomes a border issue precisely because the regime is likely to transition from 'acquisition' VAT to 'import' VAT (exercised by Norway), where goods are held at the border until proof of VAT payment has been confirmed by customs authorities. Usually there is scope for mitigating VAT procedures at the border. Pre-arrival declaration systems, where importers pay VAT away from the border periodically subject to rigorous auditing of accounts, can be introduced by HMRC after adequate bureaucratic preparation has taken place.

There is some dispute over whether or not the EU will allow the UK to continue its participation in its VAT area, in the way that it does the Isle of Man. I personally think this is possible, especially if VAT proves to be the last area of contention for the border. The EU is known for its ability to fudge relationships and I don't see any particular reason why Brussels would be stoically inflexible here. VAT is not a huge issue and can in large part be dealt with electronically. If we can remain in the EU's VAT area, this would eliminate the border issue but would also require continued ECJ submission. It's a trade-off.

From a logistical and analytical perspective, the last sentence in Corbyn's customs union policy announcement is the trickiest. What we know for sure is that there will be no UK veto over future EU trade negotiations. There is no political will for this in Brussels and no precedent for it in the EU's other customs union relationships. It is out of the question. Whether we can influence the shape of future trade negotiations is unclear. We would, of course, only need a vested interest in contributing to discussions over changes to tariffs, as this would be where our trade policy would be restricted.

I believe that meaningful influence is highly unlikely. Third countries may in some cases request that the UK partake in discussion, but I cannot be sure about where or why. At best I might suggest that a consultative mechanism could be established to enable the UK to leave 'comments' on proposals and negotiation developments in a similar fashion to EEA legislative processes. They would have limited impact, naturally, but such is the very nature of customs union participation that the independence of trade policy is infringed upon. I am therefore clutching at straws to find ways of supporting Corbyn's aim.

Turkey, for instance, forever trails EU trade negotiations. Turkey's bargaining position is weak: they must automatically apply tariff concessions after the EU has negotiated FTAs, and will subsequently arrange reciprocity with relevant trading partners. Brussels takes the lead on the application of tariff concessions and Ankara follows slowly behind. Notice, importantly, that Turkey is not guaranteed to receive reciprocity from third countries after obliging to apply these tariff concessions. Labour's new policy could well see the UK arrive at an identical position.

In this sense I think the change in party policy is logistically naive. Politically it is clever in its ability to tempt Tory remainer loyalists to vote against the Government and join opposition seeking to soften and water down Brexit. It might well be worth describing Labour's shift as intelligent naivety. Whether Corbyn and allies believe that Britain could influence EU trade deals whilst parked inside a parallel customs union is really not important. The Tories are the governing party and the pressure is now on Mrs May to pass crucial legislation, avoiding the prickles of thorny amendments.

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