In the Lords’ hands

The U.K. gov­ern­ment faces a tough Brexit week with a cru­cial vote in Par­lia­ment

The Hindu - - EDITORIAL -

Theresa May’s gov­ern­ment faces an­other brac­ing week in its Brexit cal­en­dar. With the House of Lords ex­pected to vote in favour of con­tin­u­ing in the com­mon cus­toms union, this may set the tone for Par­lia­ment’s fi­nal vote later this year on Britain’s with­drawal from the Euro­pean Union. This week’s vote on an amend­ment to the exit bill is likely to be a re­play of the sce­nario that played out in the House of Lords last year, when peers across party lines handed a bruis­ing de­feat to Prime Min­is­ter May on the rights of mil­lions of EU cit­i­zens in post-Brexit Britain. The con­tro­versy over the fu­ture sta­tus of Lon­don in Europe’s cus­toms union has taken cen­trestage in re­cent months, deep­en­ing di­vi­sions among the rul­ing Con­ser­va­tives over a hard or soft exit. Fu­elling the rift was a leaked White­hall secret anal­y­sis in Jan­uary of the eco­nomic fall­out of leav­ing the EU. It fore­cast a mea­gre 0.2-0.4% rise in GDP from a U.K. trade deal with coun­tries out­side the bloc, in­clud­ing the U.S. and China. Mean­while, Jeremy Cor­byn, the op­po­si­tion Labour leader, has sig­nalled a shift in his party’s stance and called for re­main­ing in the cus­toms union as the only re­al­is­tic guar­an­tee of duty-free ac­cess to the EU af­ter Brexit. The veteran euroscep­tic’s cur­rent dis­po­si­tion to forge strong links with the sin­gle mar­ket is sig­nif­i­cant. Stay­ing in a cus­toms union will limit the loss of trade with EU. It would also re­duce the risk of a hard bor­der be­tween Britain and the Repub­lic of Ire­land, a prospect that Dublin sees as a po­ten­tial dan­ger to the in­tegrity of the 1998 Good Fri­day Ac­cord with North­ern Ire­land. How­ever, shar­ing the same tar­iff rates within the EU would se­verely limit Britain’s room for ma­noeu­vre in ne­go­ti­at­ing trade agree­ments with non-EU na­tions. Whereas a cus­toms deal is nec­es­sar­ily re­stricted to com­merce in goods, bi­lat­eral trade pacts typ­i­cally in­clude sev­eral menu items besides goods, such as ser­vices and in­vest­ment. The U.K.’s re­ten­tion of the EU cus­toms union would there­fore sub­ject Lon­don’s trade deals with third coun­tries to the tar­iff terms they may have al­ready set­tled with the EU. Such an even­tu­al­ity would ex­pose the blus­ter be­hind the Brex­i­teers’ rhetoric of ‘tak­ing back con­trol’ of the coun­try’s eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal sovereignty. In the event of a de­feat in the House of Lords, Ms. May would have the op­tion of go­ing to the Com­mons, where she has a slen­der ma­jor­ity. But there is no deny­ing the fluid state of the ne­go­ti­a­tions over Britain’s with­drawal, or Brus­sels’ in­creas­ingly strong po­si­tion when it comes to dic­tat­ing the terms of the de­par­ture. The hope must be that all the par­ties con­cerned will make the best of a rather bad sit­u­a­tion.

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