LONDON — The UK government’s decision to publicise its negotiation position on the customs union “seems like a sign of weakness,” according to EU academic Professor Anand Menon, a professor of European politics at King’s College London. Menon is currently a director at the research organisation UK In A Changing Europe.
Reacting to the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) paper published on Tuesday, Menon said “hand on heart” that he could not understand why the British side had decided to reveal its negotiating hand.
“Hand on heart, I do not know why they have put this stuff out,” Menon told Business Insider this afternoon.
“Their position up to now has been ‘the British government doesn’t discuss its negotiating position and doesn’t publish its papers,’ because why should they? You can agree with that or disagree with that — but it was a position.
“By going back on that position, they have left themselves open to the allegation of being weak and reacting to criticism,” he said.
“A lot of the criticism of the British government is just plain unfair. The stuff about the photo of David Davis with no papers in front of him was just ridiculous. But I don’t know why they have done this. It seems like a sign of weakness.”
The paper, which you can read in full here, confirmed the government’s intention to leave the customs union and negotiate a transitional customs deal with the EU which will allow British businesses to carry on with little disruption after Brexipermanent permanent customs arrangement is put into place.
The EU has made it clear on several occasions it will not discuss future trade relations with Britain until significant progress has been made on issues like the rights of citizens and the money the UK must pay in financial obligations, or the divorce bill as it has become known.
However, the feeling within Westminster is British negotiators will struggle to make progress when talks resume this month unless the British side has a clear understanding of what it wants post-Brexit trade relations to look like.
Menon says “there is a lot in[the paper] that is ambiguous and vague” but claims there is nothing in the government’s proposals that EU negotiators are likely to sign up to. A spokesperson for the European Commission poured cold water over the UK’s proposals on Tuesday, saying “frictionless trade not possible outside the single market and customs union.”
“Differences between ‘a customs union,’ ‘the customs union’ and ‘customs union arrangement,’ we don’t know what any of that means. Whether ‘a’ customs union is materially different to ‘the’ customs union we don’t know, and it strikes me that this is absolutely crucial,” said Menon, who is also a Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs at Kings College.
“But if a customs union is essentially the same as the customs union, why wouldn’t the EU turn around and say ‘well just take what you’ve already got?’ We understand you’ve got political problems but for heaven’s sake setting up a new system just because of Liam Fox is not in our interest.’
“Added to that, if there is any difference between the customs union and a customs union, it will impose costs. It will mean the French and the Dutch and the Irish have got to put in place new customs arrangements to deal with the new situation. Why they would accept increased costs just to ensure Liam Fox can negotiate trade deals I don’t know.
“We need to stop and think what would make the EU want to stop and sign it. This is a negotiation. We can’t just say ‘this is what we want’ and expect to get it because there are costs on the other side too. What they will want is the transition either to be the same as what we have now or the same as where we end up.”
Menon said businesses will be encouraged by signs that May’s government is taking their concerns seriously but stressed that, ultimately, Britain’s “fate” will be settled by what follows the transitional period i.e a final Brexit deal or indeed no deal at all.
“The important thing about all this isn’t transition but what happens after transition — and that’s even more ambiguous,” he explained.
“Everyone is focused on transition because that’s the next three years and everyone wants to know what happens tomorrow. But ultimately the fate of the country depends on what happens after that. I have a niggly sense that transition is being used a distraction to keep us all worried about that rather than the final Brexit deal.”
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