We are about to start our final year as a full European Union member, but the hapless UK Government still appears split from top to bottom over what life will look like afterwards.
Let’s start with the simplest and most fundamental question – what sort of trading deal should we have with the 27 countries of the EU after we leave? In a common sense world, it wouldn’t be controversial to argue that we should seek the closest arrangement possible with EU. These are, after all, the countries nearest to the UK and those with whom we do the majority of our trade.
But common sense left this debate long ago. The UK Government is now beholden to a sizeable minority of europhobic Tories whose prejudices fester on the backbenches. For them it is a matter of principle not to have a special deal with the EU even when logic screams that is the right thing to do. At long last Labour are moving in the right direction. They’ve finally joined the other opposition parties in calling for a customs union with the EU after Brexit. From the debate in the House of Commons on Monday, it seems the difference between “the” customs union which exists at present and “a” customs union which they propose is entirely semantic – they are in effect the same thing although the legal framework will be different.
I reckon there’s now a majority in the Commons for this position and with some deft political footwork and goodwill the Government can be defeated. Of course the Government can do the sums too and will be desperately looking at how they can scrape together a position which keeps their party together.
A customs union isn’t just a matter of walking through the “Nothing to Declare” aisle at the airport. Without it, an army of paper-pushers and enforcement officers would be required to police everything that moves between this island and mainland Europe. Local businesses would face a bureaucratic nightmare trying to export to the continent and everyone would have to pay extra for imported goods.
If there is a customs union, then that means signing up to rules about how we trade with other countries who are not part of it. That will place restraints and conditions on whatever deals we do with the likes of India, China or wherever, which makes it all the more ridiculous that Liam Fox and his sidekicks are allowed to circumnavigate the globe wooing foreign governments with their gold cards before any of this is clear. Meanwhile back in Blighty, the debate rages about the effect of Brexit on devolution. As currently drafted, the Withdrawal Bill will drive a coach and horses through the principle of devolution by creating a new layer of UK-wide governance to control how the Scottish parliament operates. Even the Government admits it needs changed.
Yet somehow all the civil servants and ministers couldn’t get their act together to prepare a change to the draft wording in time. This level of disorganisation is inexcusable. And this, by the way, is entirely of the UK Government’s own making – no point trying blame Michel Barnier. Hence the Scottish Government is bringing forward a Continuity Bill at Holyrood this week in case a deal isn’t reached. And the Welsh Government are doing the same.
Brexit will, in time, be seen as possibly the greatest act of collective self-harm a country ever inflicted on itself. As the dust settles and the consequences become clear, I firmly believe that the people of Scotland will want to consider whether Brexit UK really is the best we can do. Or whether the changes in the world around us mean the sensible and common sense option is to take back control of our own destiny and chart a different course.
Column written for the Edinburgh Evening News - Thursday 1st March 2018