The best thing about the Lib Dems? We do our fighting in public

Osbornomics, tuition fees, Trident, the 50p tax rate, nuclear power. Whatever you think of the Lib Dems, you can’t say we hide our debates away.

So, a former minister of state has announced she won’t stand again for election in protest at the leader who sacked her (with half the membership yelling 'disaster' and the other half muttering 'on your bike'); the party president has been making big cow eyes at the Labour leader, while our Home Office minister has been doing similar to the Conservatives. There appears to be a Christians vs. the Lions debate raging in the party. Oh, and Matthew Oakeshott says Nick should resign.

It can only be conference week for the Lib Dems.

And what a corker of a conference awaits, with rows galore on the horizon. Of course the main event is the economic debate on Monday, with Nick summing up in an argument that’s been billed as Osbornomics vs. Plan B. The Social Liberal Forum has mobilisaed to defeat the leader, Nick’s rumoured to have performed what’s known as the 'Shirley Williams manoeuvre' to get Vince in as air cover. But no one seems to know for sure if it's true, or who is actually going to lead the debate. All we do know for sure is: There Will Be Blood.

And that’s just for starters. Members are being invited to give tuition fees their blessing (fight), recommend the introduction of porn filters (fight), keep Trident (already looking like the leadership’s retreating), back the bedroom tax (fight), bring back the 50p tax rate (Mr. Farron says Yes, Mr. Laws says no…). The list seems endless. Oh, hang on I’ve forgotten nuclear power. And Europe.

And it all happens in the full glare of the media.

You can keep your set piece speeches, fake debates and backroom deals. Whatever you think of the Lib Dems (and after a couple of years blogging here, I’ve a fairly clear idea), you can’t say we hide our debates away.

They’re full on, frank and there for all to see. There’s no conference quite like it. And deep down – I bet you’re all a bit jealous. 

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Nick Clegg and Vince Cable during a visit to the Ricardo Engine Assembly plant on September 24, 2012 in Shoreham-by-Sea. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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.