Customs Union Debate

Ed spoke in the debate on Britain's membership of the Customs Union today. You can watch his full speech here.


Mr Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con)

I see that a Treasury Minister is responding to this debate, not a Trade Minister. This is a new phenomenon: when the Government are in trouble, they no longer uncork the Gauke; they un-shell the Mel.

I do not know about the emperor’s new clothes, but I feel I am living in an Alice in Wonderland world. I am learning more and more about Brexit every day. I have learned that we can be out of the EU but in the single market; that we can be out of the EU but in the customs union; that we can be in the EU and have a blue passport made by a British company; that we can be out of the EU and have a blue passport made by a French company; that the Windrush scandal is the Europeans’ fault because they are in favour of people presenting papers, and that Brexiteers are very pro-immigration; that there will no longer be a bonfire of EU regulations—but it’s all right because we are going to adopt them all; that we are not trading enough with the EU so we are going to make it more difficult to trade with the EU; and that the Good Friday agreement is a waste of time and we are to have a hard border with Northern Ireland because of Brexit; and I have heard that anything I do to contradict anyone who supports Brexit is undermining the will of the people, even though during the referendum, as far as I am aware, there was a clear question—“Do you want to leave the EU?”—but no clear proposition about what that meant, which has left it to Parliament to decide what leaving means, or at least to guide and engage with the Government.


George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con)

In Mid Norfolk, where my constituents voted to leave, the majority opinion on the doorstep was: “Mr Freeman, I wanted to be in the single market, not in a political union. It was Mrs Thatcher who took us into the single market. I want to be in the single market, not in the political union.” Does my right hon. Friend agree with my constituents?


Mr Vaizey

That is absolutely right. My right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin), in his excellent memoirs, says he parted company with the Brexiteers, having been a Eurosceptic, because he supported a free trade arrangement with the EU but did not want to leave the EU in order to cause damage to our economy—I have not put that very well, but the key point is that, if we are to leave the EU, which we are, and we are a free and sovereign nation, we can then make decisions in the interests of our economy; and if it is in the interests of our economy to be a member of a customs union, it should be possible for Parliament to debate that and make that decision without being accused ​of betraying the will of the British people. The people who are passionate about Brexit have tipped over into an ideological fervour where anything that involves Europe in any shape or form is wrong.

I have come here to ask un-shelled Mel some questions to educate myself, because I want to make the decision that is best for my country. I am one of the Prime Minister’s trade envoys to Vietnam, so I know a tiny bit about trade. If it is best to leave the customs union and make up for the economic impact of doing so by means of free trade deals, can my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury tell me when we are planning to sign these new trade deals, who we are planning to sign them with, what their value to our economy will be and what the related issues will be? For example, I have read in the newspapers that one aspect of trade deals with countries such as India and Australia—they are both countries that I love—will be more relaxed immigration and visa rules. I do not have a particular problem with that, but is my right hon. Friend aware of that issue, and how does he think it will go down with the public?

When it comes to regulatory standards, I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), although I do not have a problem with food standards in America or Australia; we do not see a lot of Australians or Americans dropping down with food poisoning. Given that food standards in those countries are different from ours, are the Government content to sign up to them? Let us face it; one of the reasons we have tariffs is that there is an element of protectionism in every economy. What will be the reaction of sectors of our economy, such as agriculture, when we sign these trade deals?

I would like to know the Government’s view on the cost of leaving the customs union, and the impact of doing so on sectors that are important to our economy, such as cars, agriculture, pharmaceuticals and chemicals. The hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves)—the excellent Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee—has done a lot of this work for the Government. Perhaps the Minister could help me, as a bear of little brain, with something else. As far as I am aware, staying in the customs union will allow us to export goods to the European Union without tariffs, but it should leave us free to negotiate free trade deals outside of those goods. It should, indeed—this is particularly important given that services now account for 80% of our economy—allow global Britain to negotiate service agreements with the US, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe pointed out.

The Minister could perhaps help to explain the paradox of how Germany, which is a member of the customs union, has managed to increase its exports to China so significantly while it has been anchored and shackled to this protectionist racket. Why is Germany exporting five times as much to China as Britain is doing? Is it simply that Germany makes a hell of a lot of effort to export goods? If we made a hell of a lot effort while we were still in the customs union, perhaps we could continue to increase our exports to China.