A to B: Transport week at the New Statesman

Introducing a week of themed posts on how we get from here to there and back again.

It's not where you go, it's how you get there. We all need to get around, from the day-to-day (the average Briton spends three and a half hours commuting every week) to the less frequent (there were 45 million flights abroad in 2012, mostly to Europe).

And how we choose to do it matters. In 2011, 21 people died on the London Underground, while 16 cyclists died in the capital. Those numbers may be roughly comparable, but when you consider that the Tube carries four million people a day while there is an eighth that number of cyclists, it's clear that one group is taking a much bigger (though still small) risk.

Living with that risk may be the cause of the fierce group dynamic cyclists display. But it's not just them. How we travel can define us in surprising ways. From the shared drudgery of an eight and a half hour coach trip across England to the commuters standing in an overcrowded train doing its best impression of a sardine tin, the trip matters almost as much as the destination.

Of course, for some people, the trip is the destination. Take the itinerant retirees of the British canal system, who give up society to live a life of fields, tiny town shops and everlasting damp; or the hundreds of rough sleepers who make the most of London's night bus network to catch 90 minutes of safe rest.

Over the next week, we'll be taking a look at all these aspects of transport and more. Hayley Campbell gives her rules for cycling; Alan White shares his time on a narrowboat; Samira Shackle reports on the car-centric lives of wealthy Pakistanis; and there will be more besides.

Monday: Hayley Campbell has been cycling in London for two years and is inexplicably Not Dead. Now you can be Not Dead too.

Tuesday: Alan White shares his time floating around Britain's canal network, and Alex Andreou shares the unique relationship a migrant has with planes.

Wednesday: Samira Shackle writes about the dependence the rich of Pakistan have on their cars, and Labour's shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle calls of the government to end its stop-start approach to cycling.

Thursday: Holly Baxter shares her love-hate relationship with National Express, the red-headed stepchild of transport, and Eleanor Margolis recounts her experience with the vikings of the N22.

Friday: Caroline Crampton recalls the time her parents were lost at sea.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.