Theresa May has put her foot down – or that’s at least what some British would tell you. The UK will leave the European Union’s customs union as well as its single market after Brexit, the country’s prime minister confirmed this week, after eurosceptics within her own Conservative party demanded clarity on the issue.
Hardline conservatives were incensed by reports that the UK, rather than going its own way on trade, might enter some kind of new, replacement customs union with the EU. So Ms. May resorted to appeasing the ultra-Brexiteers. She reiterated, for the umpteenth time, that the UK would do no such thing after leaving the 28-nation trading bloc in March of next year.
But Ms. May’s proclamation, on its own, doesn’t bring the UK’s exit from the customs union any closer. That’s because her official Brexit positions are a wish list full of contradictions. She’s planning to pull the UK out because she wants to pursue her own trade policy. But at the same time, the Northern Irish border with the Republic of Ireland is supposed to remain open. Ms. May can’t have it both ways, as EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has pointed out.
Theresa May's proclamation doesn't bring the UK's exit from the customs union any closer.
The Brexit divorce agreement hammered out in December guarantees that the issue remains on the table – despite Ms. May’s promise. In the first phase of their discussions, the Brexit negotiators agreed that a “hard border” with Ireland should be avoided at all costs. The UK has also pledged to align its regulations in Northern Ireland with EU rules if no new trade agreement is in place. And everything that applies to Northern Ireland must also apply to the rest of the UK, as the Conservative party’s parliamentary partner, the DUP, insists.
In other words, a customs union or some equivalent with the EU may still be in the offing. Once again, Ms. May has just postponed a decision. But sooner or later, she will have to choose – to keep the borders with the EU open, or leave the customs union. You can’t have it both ways.
Carsten Volkery is Handelsblatt’s London correspondent. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org