- Theresa May and her Cabinet are reportedly ready to stay in the customs union beyond 2021.
- The extension would give UK more time to come up with a workable customs solution.
- British officials want there to be a strict time-limit on the proposal.
- Downing Street reportedly believes the proposal would allow ministers to say they have formally left the EU customs union while avoiding a hard border with Ireland.
LONDON – Britain is willing to stay aligned with EU customs rules and tariffs until well into the 2020s, as ministers continue to battle over the UK’s post-Brexit arrangements, according to multiple reports.
Three senior officials from the UK and EU told Politico that Theresa May’s team is floating a plan which would see the UK temporarily remain inside the EU’s external common tariff until a future customs arrangement is agreed, instead of leaving the EU’s customs arrangement at the end of the transition period in December 2020.
Downing Street reportedly believes the proposal would allow ministers to say they have formally left the EU customs union while avoiding a cliff-edge scenario for business in Northern Ireland and the emergence of a hard border with Ireland.
The news follows weeks of Cabinet deadlock over the UK’s future customs arrangements. Brexiteers favour a “max-fac” option which would utilise new technology, but the scheme would be hugely complex and could take years to implement.
May’s preferred “customs partnership” solution, which would see the UK collect tariffs on behalf of the EU, was described as “crazy” by Boris Johnson and considered potentially illegal under trade law by Brexit secretary David Davis.
A UK official told Politico the plan would have a strict time-limit and said the main problem would likely be objections from the Irish government.
“Basically it’s keeping [Britain] in the external tariff until the new system is ready,” the official said.
“It would have to include a sunset clause. Both sides would need this. The question is how you find the language to persuade the Irish.”
There are doubts over whether the EU would accept a time-limited arrangement, as this would mean Britain could, in theory, drop out of the EU’s customs arrangement without a solution for the Irish border in place.
Crucially, the prime minister’s so-called Brexit war cabinet has already nominally approved the plan, according to Bloomberg and the Telegraph, which reported that ministers signed off on the plan despite objections from Foreign Secretary Jonson and Environment Secretary Michael Gove.
They reportedly agreed that Britain should stay aligned to the customs union if highly complex and untested technology needed to operate borders after Brexit is not ready, but made clear that Britain would still be able to strike its own free-trade deals.
A pro-EU Cabinet source said the pair had been “outgunned.”
The news is likely to infuriate the 60-strong group of Tory Brexiteers who believe the move could keep Britain tied to the customs union indefinitely. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the European Research Group, told the Telegraph: “The risk of the Government using all its mental energy on the fallback position is that they create a position that is more attractive than a permanent deal.”
“We have gone from a clear endpoint to an extension, to a proposed further extension with no endpoint. The horizon seems to be unreachable. The bottom of the rainbow seems to be unattainable. People voted to leave, they did not vote for a perpetual purgatory.”
Conservative MP Nicky Morgan told Business Insider on Wednesday that the prime minister must ignore Rees-Mogg, describing his recent interventions as “bluster from a Brexiteer who knows he is being called out by reality.”