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Morning Call: pick of the papers

The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

1. Protect Britain in a two-speed Europe (Financial Times)

States outside the eurozone should not be at disadvantage in the EU, write George Osborne and Wolfgang Schäuble.

2. Children don’t earn their inheritance. Tax it (Times)

A fair society would let people keep as much of their earnings as possible but take a cut from property and land, says Philip Collins. 

3. Osborne must not run scared of housing (Daily Telegraph)

If the Chancellor is charging up the nation’s credit card, he should spend it on property, says Jeremy Warner. 

4. Farage's TV debate has lit the European touchpaper – are we in or out? (Guardian)

Britain is a step closer to leaving Europe this week, writes Polly Toynbee. It is high time all who fear an exit from the union spoke out against the liars.

5. Only one person is laughing at the Farage-Clegg EU pantomime (Daily Telegraph)

The PM is offering a grown-up discussion on radical reform of the European Union, along with the Germans and Dutch, says Fraser Nelson. 

6. We should thank Putin for one thing - the west is once again the West (Independent)

Thanks to Mr Putin it is experiencing a frisson of unity it has not known for a long time, writes Peter Popham. 

7. Why foxhunting has become an unspeakable topic (Daily Telegraph)

A reluctance to address the contentious issue of foxhunting is dividing the Tory party, says Isabel Hardman. 

8. Labour is part of the problem, not the solution (Guardian)

Its rhetoric may be softer than the Tories', but the party still puts profit before people, says Ken Loach. Left Unity offers a new voice.

9. Osborne had to aid spenders over savers (Financial Times)

The Chancellor’s plans, if implemented, mean turning the government into a substantial net saver, writes Martin Wolf. 

10. Price of Power (Times)

Energy suppliers say that a competition inquiry would interfere with investment plans, but it must go ahead, says a Times editorial. 

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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.