In Brief

Brexit: what ‘no customs union’ means for the UK

Crunch week ahead as Tories finalise Brexit policies

Downing Street says Britain is “categorically” leaving the customs union post-Brexit - a statement viewed alternately as a salve to calm backbenchers over UK-EU ties, or as a red flag for Tory mutineers.

No. 10’s insistence that the UK has ruled out a customs union - essentially a trade agreement where EU members charge the same import tax - follows what Politico’s Jack Blanchard describes as “days of increasingly bitter squabbling within the Tory party”.

Hard Brexiteers warn that staying in a customs deal with the EU will prevent the UK from negotiating future trade deals. Soft Brexiteers argue that severing ties will damage the economy. Theresa May seems likely to propose a middle ground - either a customs partnership or a highly streamlined customs arrangement.

A Downing Street source told HuffPost’s Paul Waugh: “The key point, as the PM said about 15 times last week, is we need to have freedom to sign trade deals.” 

The Financial Times says a new “customs partnership” would reduce the need for a customs border, but warns it would take years to develop the technology to make the system workable.

For now, The Times’s Sam Coates says, a compromise is being prepared for a time-limited extension to elements of the existing customs union.

But it might be too little, too late for ultra-Brexiteers, according to the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush. “As far as customs go, the British government has already agreed a very close degree of alignment with EU regulation if its promises on the Irish border mean anything,” Bush says.

Leaving the customs union would mean mandatory customs checks for every lorry between the UK and EU until a free trade deal is struck with Brussels, The Sun reports. 

It could also mean a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic - physical infrastructure and vehicle spot checks that could stir up sectarian violence again, after almost 20 years of peace under Good Friday Agreement, warns The Irish Times.

The customs debate comes at the start of a crucial week of negotiations. May and Brexit Secretary David Davis meet EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier today, before May’s Brexit war cabinet sit down on Wednesday and Thursday to thrash out an agreed position on post-Brexit trade and customs.

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