So Theresa May postponed the key vote on her Brexit deal because...
On Wednesday evening the House of Lords voted 348 to 225 for an amendment to the E.U. (Withdrawal) Bill that requires the Government to seek a deal to keep us in a customs union post-Brexit. The amendment would have to be accepted by the MPs when the Bill is reported back to the Commons and the outcome is far from certain.
On the one hand most MPs wish to respect the result of the 2016 referendum but Remainers will argue that the referendum did not give a mandate for any particular type of Brexit. Moreover, the 123 majority in the Lords included members of all the parties and Cross-benchers. It also included some former Conservative Ministers, which could encourage Conservative rebels to follow their example when the Lord’s amendments come to a vote.
The principal case for remaining in a customs union is that it would give us continuing tariff free access to the EU market of 500 million which we already have. Brexiteers contend that leaving the EU would free us to make new deals with the rest of the world. Peers questioned the strength of that argument and suggested that new deals with the USA and Commonwealth nations would not make up for what would be lost by leaving the EU. We already have trade agreements with 44 of the 50 Commonwealth nations, many of which are poor and underdeveloped. Even trade with wealthy countries such as Australia and India would come with strings that Brexiteers might reject, including increased immigration. The Lords’ point is that we do not have to choose between trade with Europe and with the rest of the world.
A second, equally compelling case for remaining in a customs union concerns the continuing integrity of the United Kingdom. The border issue between Northern Ireland and the Republic remains a major sticking point in the Brexit negotiations and there will be no deal and a hard border with the EU if we cannot resolve it. The potential damage to the peace settlement created by the Good Friday Agreement is deeply worrying. The simplest solution is to remain in a customs union. That would also meet some of the concerns in Scotland that pose a potential threat to the Union.
A third reason for staying as close to our European neighbours as we can post-Brexit is our mutual security in the face of Russian expansionist threats. Militarily that is the function of NATO but politically for the free nations of Europe, including former satellites of the USSR, that is a European issue and not one that involves the USA, especially whilst American foreign policy is so unpredictable.
Ardent Brexiteers will oppose our membership of a customs union because they see it as incompatible with leaving the EU and an obstacle to developing trade links with the rest of the world. That need not be the case. Membership of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) and the European Economic Area (EEA) are separate from EU membership and no obstacle to trading with any other nation but it would give us tariff free access to the EU single market without free movement of labour or render us subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
This would probably be unacceptable to hard line Brexiteers and might well lead to a challenge to Theresa May’s leadership from her right wingers. Remainers will remind them that the difference between the 48% who voted to remain and the 52 % who voted to leave does not entitle them to insist on a hard Brexit. The House of Lords is pointing to a possible compromise which they cannot ignore if there is a majority for them in both Houses of Parliament. The rest of us should pray that the members of both Houses have the wisdom and grace to find the best outcome for us all.