5 Feb 2018

Ministers to discuss Brexit customs arrangement

So what is it that Cabinet Ministers are going to be asked to sign up to this week on Brexit?

No 10 has slapped down suggestions that we are staying in the Customs Union after the transition. But something is being cooked up in that area. One Cabinet Brexiteer told me: “it’s a Customs Agreement not a Customs Union.”

Another Cabinet Minister who sits on the Brexit Committee said “tough political realities” could mean some movement was necessary on the blanket rejection of the Customs Union. The minister said the government could see Jeremy Corbyn giving full backing to staying in the full-blown Customs Union (“when has he ever backed a free trade deal?”) and they need to be aware of the perils of being out-flanked by Labour on this in a House of Commons where, the minister said, “there’s probably a majority for staying in the Customs Union.”

So there is an expectation that Olly Robbins, the chief negotiator, may be about to present an approach that is intended to pull the Cabinet together (though one Downing Street source said “Boris is not onside”). It’s thought this could be based on the “mirroring” idea floated last summer by the government under which the U.K. would collect duty for the EU on non EU country imports. The government acknowledged at the time that this was a bold move which would require new and extensive technology. Experts say it would be impossible to get it in place by the end of the transition if the date for that remains 31/12/20. That may explain why there is talk of extending membership of the Customs Union (maybe by a year) beyond the end of the transition.

There was no master plan in ministers’ weekend red boxes and some who are due to attend the Brexit Committee are wondering when they’ll actually get to see it if they’re meant to discuss it on Wednesday/Thursday. One minister said it was an “heroic assumption” to think the Cabinet Conmittee would be ready to sign off on an agreed approach by the end of the week as another Cabinet Minister told me was the original expectation. An awayday for ministers during the Commons half term break has been diaried suggesting No 10 is aware of that now.

Would the hybrid approach actually get any kind of welcome from the EU27? Olly Robbins would not, it’s said, be pushing something that he thought would fall at the first fence with EU partners. But keeping the frictionless benefits of a Customs Union while only signing up to a less binding Customs Agreement will sound to some like  exactly the kind of the thing Michel Barnier’s team has been warning the U.K. wont fly and the “mirroring” approach was mocked by some in the EU when it first surfaced last summer.

A footnote: the mood on the Brexit Committee may not have been helped by Mrs May’s words on migration policy last week.

Some on the Brexit Cabinet Committee bristled when the PM to their minds made up policy on the Transition negotiation on the hoof (or the wing) en route to China last week. In what No 10 clearly thought would be a move popular with some elements of the party and some newspapers, Mrs May told journalists on the RAF jet that she was prioritising a hard line on post-2019 EU arrivals in the negotiations with the EU during the transition. One minister on the Brexit Committee sounded pretty peeved that there was no agreed position on that and ministers might well have different priorities for transition negotiations.

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