28 July 2016

Liam Fox, Secretary of State for International Trade, has said that the UK should leave the EU Customs Union. But what exactly does membership of the Customs Union entail, and what would the UK need to do once it had left? Daniel Thornton explores the issues.

A key issue from a trade perspective will be whether or not the UK stays in the EU Customs Union when it leaves the European Union (EU).

The Customs Union is an important element of the EU Single Market. Under its rules, the EU operates as a trade bloc, operating common external tariffs and customs barriers, and negotiating trade deals as one. As a member of the Customs Union, the UK is not allowed to negotiate other bilateral trade deals – which is why Liam Fox has argued that it needs to leave.

What would leaving the Customs Union mean for the UK? On the face of it, customs checks at EU borders, including at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – something that does not seem to be compatible with Theresa May’s comments about ensuring Brexit works for Northern Ireland. Another implication is that the UK will no longer benefit from the EU’s 56 free trade agreements (FTAs), which provide better access to markets outside of the EU, such as Korea, Mexico and Chile. This may mean that UK exporters face higher tariffs and other trade barriers in these markets.

Of course, there are other possibilities. For example, the UK could leave the full Customs Union and still negotiate some forms of access – Turkey, while not a member of the EU, is part of the Customs Union for industrial goods.

What matters at the moment is that UK ministers appear to be on different pages. The very fact that Liam Fox and his new department have been tasked with striking new international trade deals seems to suggest that the Government does intend to make a clean break from the Customs Union – because, as a member, building these new relationships would not be possible. But the Prime Minister’s comments in Scotland and Northern Ireland suggest a prioritisation of new trading arrangements that are as close to the status quo as possible. At some point soon, these ambiguous signals will have to be resolved.

There is also another important consideration about leaving the EU Customs Union which we haven’t heard much about yet: the UK’s relationship with the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The terms of UK membership of the WTO are currently governed by its membership of the EU Customs Union. So, when the UK leaves the EU, the UK’s existing WTO commitments will have an uncertain status and will need to be redrafted.

The quickest option for the UK would be to mirror its existing commitments. However, other countries could object to this approach. For example, agricultural exporters such as Brazil and Argentina want better access to the UK market, and might see Brexit as an opportunity to push for it. Some elements of the EU’s membership of the WTO, such as the quota for importing New Zealand sheep meat, would also be affected by the UK leaving the Customs Union. So even a simple mirroring of existing commitments could involve complicated negotiations between the EU, the UK and other countries.

Once the UK triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, it has two years to negotiate its exit. If the UK leaves the EU without having reached agreement on its new commitments with the WTO, it is likely that the UK will continue to apply its existing trade commitments until the new ones are agreed. This will create uncertainty for UK businesses – over timescales and outcomes.

An important task for the UK will be to start to rebuild its network of trade agreements to replace the ones it will lose if it chooses to leave the Customs Union. Chancellor Philip Hammond recently said that Brexit meant the UK could do trade deals with other countries, including ‘countries like China’. Before he became Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, David Davis said that it would be possible for the UK to negotiate trade deals ‘massively larger’ than the EU.

However, there are big questions about the sequencing of all these negotiations, and how long they will take. Informal discussions could take place, but the UK cannot actually sign new free trade agreements until it has left the EU. The US Trade Representative has said that informal discussions won’t be possible until decisions have been made about the UK and EU relationship. Even then, many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.

There is no doubt that it is important for the UK to signal that it is still open for business. But there are several issues that need to be resolved before it can start signing new trade deals.


Your article overlooks that Norway and others are in the Single Market but not in the Customs Union. A customs union is more about maintaining a common external tariff than about the movement of goods and services within it. Norway negotiates its own trade deals with third countries - possible because it has its own external tariff. It then accesses the Single Market based on the origin details of goods.

Your article also suggests that Argentina and Brazil have a trade agreement now with the EU which could be replicated or negotiated over for improvements from one side or another. This would be the case for many countries but you have chosen badly when talking about Argentina and Brazil. There is no EU trade agreement with these countries (although negotiations on an EU-Mercosur FTA are ongoing).

I don't say the EU has trade deals with Argentina or Brazil. I say that these countries could object to the renegotiation of tariff rate quotas (TRQ) in the WTO - for example, the New Zealand sheep meat EU TRQ.

You are right that Norway is not in the Customs Union. However, a customs union does remove some barriers to trade.

Why is that Germany, within the EU and therefore presumably part of the customs agreements, is second only to the USA in trade with China? As usual, 'broken Britain' is searching for opportunities to blame external factors on its inability to extend trade. As in "Oh, once we are out of the European Union, Britain will be tremendous at reaching trade agreements with everybody." Get over it, Britain, just get on and do it as other countries do and can within the noble democracy of the European Union.

I voted Leave but I do not blame "broken Britain" on the EU. You oversimplify a complex issue. We get tory govs from the FPTP system and they have undue influence in the EU due to our veto over the years ... Also many other EU countries have right wing governments for various reasons and this adds up to less influence for the left leaning people in the Uk over their lives. Democracy is a safeguard against tyranny. Right now we have tyranny.

Turkey is not part of EU Customs Union. It has a partial Customs Union with the EU, restricted to certain economic sectors.

Once it triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty the UK will automatically set the clock to exit from EU Customs Union. Membership of the EU Customs Union as it stands is entirely dependent on EU membership. A post-Brexit Customs Union with the EU must be negotiated ad hoc, and must be enforced by a new Agreement or Treaty.

The question is whether Article 50 negotiations actually makes space for a such a negotiation to take place.

It seems absolutely obvious that when we leave the EU and customs union, the prices of all that we buy from abroad will be much dearer than buying from the EU countries, especially fruit and vegetables, which may not bother those who are better off income wise but will be a great worry to those with limited budgets.

Actually much of the fruit and vegetables are imported from Africa. Under current restrictions within the customs union in the EU, common tariffs across EU member states are imposed on imports from African countries outside the EU such as Kenya for example. These tariffs account for about 20% of the cost of our food in supermarkets. This policy in the European Union is a form of protectionism for their own farmers and producers to ensure outside produce is not being imported at too cheap a cost causing EU producers of similar goods to not be able to compete.

In summary, it seems at least for fruit and vegetables food costs should in fact reduce if the UK can strike up tariff free import deals with the same African countries they are already importing from

On the other hand, still more of the fruit and vegetables consumed in the UK comes from the other 27 members of the EU, so in fact your conclusion that costs will reduce is wishful thinking, even once such tariff free deals as you imagine are agreed.

Goods should become cheaper once we leave fortress EU, at present the EU has tariffs on goods not from EU member states.
The EU agricultural and fisheries policy has been disastrous for the UK, what a disaster this whole involvement with the EU has been.

All these comments do not deal with the practical issues. At the moment sales of goods can be carried out throughout the EU using only a VAT Free invoice from business to business. The truck, car, lorry, etc carrying the goods is not bothered by inspections, customs checking, cargo manifesting etc, the load travels free of all encomberances straight from say Belfast through England etc., to Romania if desired. After we exit the EU we will go back the third party status and everything sold outside the UK will be the subject of shipping and forwarding agents because every item of goods has an identity code and must have fully identifiable descriptive paperwork!!! Costs at both ends for clearances and sometimes at borders will rise to where the used to be.... somewhere bestween 10 and 25% of the value of the goods. This is additive to tariffs!!! This is the reality of brexit. It will bring back lengthy delays. As i see it very few of the people concerned have ever taken part in this sort of trading activity. Electrical.goods for example will need their CE paperwork, meat will require vets certificates. Everything will cost a great deal more in both directions. Maybe this is what the government wanted.... re-creating massive amounts of money flipping back and forth the HMRC. I am highly suspicious of why we are so desperate to bail out of a system that was so slick and efficient and moreover cost effective.

If we remain in the customs union are we not bound by the EU rules on migration, bound by the ECJ and won't the Eu extract a significant price for membership without the existing development grants etc

Having read all your comments, it looks as though the best deal for Britain is to leave EU customs union and negotiate with every country that wants to trade with Britain ---- this includes USA, China, India, Japan and also all emerging economies.......depending on how beneficial it is to both parties.

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