- REUTERS/Hannah Mckay
- Michel Barnier tells Britain to make up its mind on Brexit.
- The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator said the “time has now come to make a choice” ahead of talks resuming this week.
- Barnier reiterated that Britain cannot enjoy tariff and barrier-free access with the EU outside the single market and customs union.
LONDON – The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator today told Britain the “time has now come to make a choice” on what sort of relationship it wants with the European Union after it leaves the bloc.
Speaking at a press conference in Westminster on Monday afternoon, Michel Barnier warned Theresa May that the EU expects the UK government to communicate an official position on what it wants from Brexit in the coming days.
Prime Minister May is under pressure from within her Conservative party and beyond to clarify whether she will prioritise maintaining close ties with EU markets or diverging from the bloc in Brexit talks with the EU.
May has repeatedly insisted that Britain can continue to enjoy the benefits of single market and customs union membership – primarily tariff and barrier-free trade with the EU – while outside the institutions.
However, Barnier poured cold water on this ambition on Monday, telling media: “Without a customs union and outside the single market, barriers to trade in goods and services are unavoidable.”
Barnier is in London for talks with Brexit Secretary David Davis in Downing Street before meeting briefly with the prime minister. This comes ahead of the restarting of Brexit negotiations later this week in Brussels.
The customs union conundrum
On Sunday night, May categorically ruled out Britain staying in either the current customs union or a new customs union with the EU after Brexit.
A senior government source told BI on Sunday evening: “To put this to rest, we are categorically leaving the customs union. It is not our policy to stay in the customs union. It is not our policy to stay in a customs union.”
A spokesperson for the prime minister added on Monday that the government was instead looking at agreeing either a “highly streamlined customs arrangement” or “a new customs partnership” with the EU.
Asked by BI what the difference was between a customs partnership and a customs union, the spokesperson replied that: “The key point as the prime minister has said on many many occasions is that we have to have our own independent trade policy and be able to strike trade deals with the rest of the world.”
The statement followed a weekend in which senior Cabinet figures had publicly clashed over the issue.
On Sunday morning the Home Secretary Amber Rudd told the BBC that the prime minister had an “open mind” about the issue.
However, this was later dismissed by the Housing Minister Dominic Raab, who told Sky News that: “I don’t think we’ll be in any form of customs union, at least as conceived in international trade practice.”
The customs union provides tariff and barrier-free trade between EU member states and applies a common external tariff to trade with non-members (i.e rest of the world.)
Membership of a formal customs union with the EU after Brexit would limit Britain’s ability to sign new deals.
However, leaked government analysis last week indicated that leaving the single market and customs union would damage Britain’s economy in excess of any economic benefit from a free trade deal with other parts of the world.