To a very large extent, what the UK wants after Brexit is irrelevant as the EU will dictate what the post-Brexit trading regime will be between the bloc and the UK. Since the unexpected referendum result, the EU has steadfastly stated that the UK cannot “cherry-pick” its relationship with the EU. Ultimately, the real power is vested with the EU-27 and not the UK, notwithstanding the bluster of avid Brexiters who proclaim that “the EU needs us more than we need them”.
To the chagrin of many ardent Remainers, the position of the opposition party Labour party to Brexit has seemed to offer little real alternative to the “vision” offered by the government. At the heart of this is the schism in the UK that underlies Brexit. Only 37% of the electorate voted for Brexit, giving a 52% to 48% result on the day. Many constituencies which return Labour MPs voted for Brexit, but more than 80% of its membership wants to engineer a soft Brexit or to remain in the EU. The leadership position seems to be one of being non-committal, accepting the outcome of the vote, whilst insisting that any deal should be a “Brexit for jobs” which is, of course, a contradiction in terms. The position of the leadership was that the UK had to leave “the” customs union as it was only open to EU members (a tad disingenuous since it is not). However, with the government to lay out its Brexit objectives at the end of the week, Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, gave a major speech yesterday in which he said Labour would seek to remain in “a” customs union with the EU to facilitate frictionless trade with the EU.
To an extent, what Mr Corbyn and the leaders of the opposition want is also irrelevant since the government makes the decisions. However, the government has to submit legislation to parliament necessary to deliver Brexit itself and to reshape legislation in the light of the UK’s new status – this legislation can be amended by parliament. Two bills that will be presented to the Commons in the next few weeks both have amendments appended to them which call for the UK to remain in “a” or “the” customs union with the EU. Given that the Labour leadership will now support one or both of these amendments and a small number of Conservative MPs have also said they will support the amendments (laid by “rebel” Tories), there is a real possibility that the government will be forced to accept that the UK must remain within a/the customs union.
Being in a customs union would constrain the UK’s ability to forge independent free trade deals with third party nations and require that the UK maintains regulatory standards required by the EU, so it will be vehemently opposed by Brexit supporting Tories. On the other hand, only a customs union will guarantee that there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland and that trade in goods can be “frictionless”. Brexit is hitting the buffers of the real world, it would seem.