Don’t de­lay our exit from EU’s cus­toms union, MPs warn May

Daily Mail - - One Day To Go ... - By Ja­son Groves Po­lit­i­cal Ed­i­tor

TORY MPs last night warned Theresa May against shack­ling Bri­tain to the cus­toms union for an ex­tended pe­riod af­ter Brexit.

White­hall of­fi­cials yes­ter­day con­firmed that min­is­ters have agreed a ‘back­stop’ plan that could see the UK tem­po­rar­ily stick to EU tar­iffs.

Sources said it would only be in­voked if new cus­toms tech­nol­ogy needed to pre­vent the cre­ation of a ‘hard border’ in Ire­land is not ready by the end of the Brexit tran­si­tion in De­cem­ber 2020.

Any ex­ten­sion would be ‘time-lim­ited’, they added. The move was agreed by Mrs May’s Brexit ‘ war cab­i­net’ on Tues­day, de­spite reser­va­tions from Brex­i­teers in­clud­ing Boris John­son and Michael Gove.

But the move raised fears the UK could be­come per­ma­nently shack­led to the cus­toms union, lim­it­ing the abil­ity to strike new trade deals. A White­hall source said min­is­ters had dis­cussed a pos­si­ble ex­ten­sion last­ing ‘months rather than years’. But of­fi­cials have warned it could take as long as five years to implement a new cus­toms plan.

Iain Dun­can Smith said Euroscep­tic MPs could ac­cept a de­lay of ‘ a month or two’ for prac­ti­cal rea­sons – but mak­ing pro­vi­sion for it now was akin to ‘plan­ning for fail­ure’. The for­mer Tory leader said: ‘Pre-an­nounc­ing an ex­ten­sion would be bark­ing mad – you would send a sig­nal to the EU that we don’t know what we want.’

The move is de­signed to pla­cate Dublin and Brus­sels, which have warned they will block a trade deal un­less Bri­tain guar­an­tees there will be no ‘ hard border’ in Ire­land. EU pro­pos­als to re­solve the prob­lem by keep­ing North­ern Ire­land in the sin­gle mar­ket have been con­demned as ‘un­ac­cept­able’ by Mrs May as they would ef­fec­tively put a border down the Ir­ish Sea. Ir­ish Taoiseach Leo Varad­kar dis­cussed the pro­posal with Mrs May yes­ter­day

‘We’ll be left in pur­ga­tory’

while they at­tended a sum­mit in Bul­garia. He said he was ‘not dis­cour­aged’ by the plan – and hinted it could lead to the UK re­main­ing closely aligned with the cus­toms union long term.

‘Cer­tainly any move on cus­toms that brings the UK closer to the EU is to be wel­comed,’ he said. In an ul­ti­ma­tum, he also sug­gested the UK could be forced to leave the EU with­out a deal un­less Mrs May makes ‘sub­stan­tial progress’ on the Ir­ish border is­sue by next month.

The PM yes­ter­day in­sisted she was not ‘climb­ing down’ and said the UK would be ‘able to op­er­ate an in­de­pen­dent trade pol­icy’ from the end of 2020.

Tory Euroscep­tic Sir Bill Cash said he would be op­posed to any sig­nif­i­cant ex­ten­sion of ties to the cus­toms union, adding: ‘We must not give in to ul­ti­ma­tums.’ Ja­cob Rees-Mogg, chair­man of the Euro­pean Re­search Group of Tory MPs, warned that Bri­tain risked be­ing left in ‘pur­ga­tory’ in which the hori­zon would be ‘un­reach­able.’

But pro-Re­main MPs wel­comed signs of a com­pro­mise. Mrs May’s for­mer deputy Damian Green said he was will­ing to ac­cept a ‘small de­lay’ to en­sure a smooth exit.

White­hall sources last night dis­missed the idea of the UK re­main­ing shack­led to the cus­toms union long term.

Min­is­ters have also raised fears that Brus­sels is stalling talks while peers at­tempt to frus­trate Brexit. EU ne­go­tia­tors are un­der­stood to be wait­ing to see how many of the 15 amend­ments pushed through by proRe­main peers in the Lords are over­turned by MPs.

Down­ing Street said the flag­ship EU With­drawal Bill would re­turn to the Com­mons in ‘weeks not months’.

All smiles: Mrs May, An­gela Merkel and Em­manuel Macron at EU sum­mit in Sofia yes­ter­day

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