Policy vacuum means customs union will continue after 2020, MPs warn

Brexit select committee says nation is cruising towards default ongoing membership post 2020

Brexit secretary David Davis. Credit: BBC

By Jim.Dunton

25 May 2018

The government’s inability to come forward with workable proposals for post-Brexit customs arrangements with the European Union means that membership of the customs union is likely to continue beyond the 21-month transition period, MPs have said.

A new report from members of the Exiting the European Union Committee says extending the UK’s membership of the customs union is the only viable solution to the policy vacuum – even though it is something that Brexit secretary David Davis has vowed will not happen.

The committee’s just-published report on the government’s progress with Article 50 negotiations said that there appeared to be an acceptance on the part of the government that neither of its post-Brexit customs models would be implementable in time for the end of the 21-month transition period that begins in March next year.


As a result, committee members said that the “backstop” position of business-as-usual contained in December’s draft EU Withdrawal Agreement was likely to continue in 2020, effectively extending customs union membership.

“The government has indicated that neither the maximum facilitation proposal nor the new customs partnership, if agreed, is likely to be ready in time during the agreed 21-month transition/implementation period,” they said.

“Each option will have to be judged against the commitment repeatedly made by the government to have no hard border in Northern Ireland, no infrastructure at the border and to uphold in full the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.

“The prime minister has alluded to ‘contingencies’ that can be triggered in this eventuality but has not set them out.

“The secretary of state has ruled out any extension of the customs union but in the absence of any other plan, such an extension will be the only viable option.”

Committee members said it was a matter of urgency for the government to set out proposals for customs beyond 2020 and be open about whether an extension of the transition period – also described as the implementation period – will be required.

Committee chair Hilary Benn said ministers were “rapidly running out of time” to get new trade and customs arrangements in place.

“Given that ministers are indicating that neither of the two options being discussed are likely to be ready by December 2020, when the transition period ends, the UK will in all likelihood have to remain in a customs union with the EU until alternative arrangements can be put in place,” he said.

Elsewhere, the report said the Home Office’s role in the Windrush scandal had “undermined trust” in its ability to competently register EU citizens living in the UK and to process their applications for temporary or settled status as part of the Withdrawal Agreement proposals.

MPs said it was important that the process was “quick, simple and available to people using a variety of technological platforms” for the anticipated three million registriations, after it emerged that an online registration platform that was in development would not work properly with operating software for Apple devices.

The committee also called on the government to “urgently update” its position paper from August last year to set out its preferences for post-Brexit dispute resolution with the EU.

“We agree that the CJEU [Court of Justice of the European Union] should not be the final arbiter after the transition/implementation period is concluded,” they said.

“However, we do not see how dispute resolution can be left to the Joint Committee for technical and political arbitration alone. The only pragmatic and acceptable solution is a final arbiter whose composition is balanced between representatives from the UK and the EU’s institutions.”

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