What was promised about the customs union before the referendum?

26 October 2018
What was claimed

Leave campaigners before the referendum weren’t consistent on whether Brexit meant leaving the customs union.

Our verdict

The customs union was rarely mentioned by Leave campaigners before the referendum. There were generally calls for the UK to have an independent trade policy, though messages about specific trading arrangements weren’t always consistent.

“Nigel Farage said yesterday that when the question was put at the referendum, it was made clear that it meant leaving the single market and leaving the customs union … And we’ve checked this today and it seems that the Prime Minister did say that.”

David Dimbleby, 18 October 2018

“No, he’s [Nigel Farage] wrong about that … I think that we all have to accept that lots of things were said in the referendum that should not have been said on both sides. And it wasn’t the consistent message of those that were leaving that we would leave the customs union.”

Sir Keir Starmer, 18 October 2018

Key figures from both the Remain and Leave campaigns said before the referendum that voting to leave meant leaving the single market. The customs union itself was rarely mentioned before the referendum, as far as we’ve seen.

There are some cases where Leave campaigners appeared to suggest the UK could stay in the single market after a vote to leave, although these examples aren’t all necessarily as straightforward as they look. In any case, they are rare exceptions, rather than the rule.

It’s easy to see how the debate around this issue would have been confusing to many people, however. For one thing, there were multiple campaigns that did not necessarily have consistent positions.

Also, the terminology used arguably invites misunderstanding. Campaigners often distinguished between maintaining “access to” the single market and being “full members”—a distinction with an unclear meaning that would be easy to miss, or misconstrue.

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The customs union and single market are different things

The EU’s customs union is a free trade area in which countries can’t put tariffs on imports from each other, and set the same tariffs and rules for countries outside the union. The single market is more wide-ranging: member countries sign up to the free movement of goods, services, people and money across their borders. All EU members are part of both, some countries outside the EU are members of one or the other.

Some countries are in a customs union with the EU but not the single market, like Turkey. Other countries are in the single market but not the customs union, like Norway.

The customs union was rarely mentioned by Leave campaigners

Mr Starmer’s office pointed us to a list on Vote Leave’s website of what the campaign considered “key speeches, interviews and op-eds” and pointed out the customs union was hardly mentioned in any of them.

This is correct. Several of the speeches made arguments against the single market, but one of the only references to a customs union was by businessman John Longworth, who said in a speech:

“That’s the reality of what the Single Market is, it’s a protectionist customs union backed by the Brussels regulation machine, and we are better off out of it, trading freely with the world, including our European neighbours, under our own laws.”

Labour’s argument that the messaging on the customs union was inconsistent also rests on a speech by prominent Leave campaigner Michael Gove, in which he said:

“There is a free trade zone stretching from Iceland to Turkey that all European nations have access to, regardless of whether they are in or out of the euro or EU. After we vote to leave we will remain in this zone.

“The suggestion that Bosnia, Serbia, Albania and the Ukraine would stay part of this free trade area - and Britain would be on the outside with just Belarus - is as credible as Jean-Claude Juncker joining UKIP.

“Agreeing to maintain this continental free trade zone is the simple course and emphatically in everyone’s interests.”

Turkey is in a partial customs union with the EU, but none of the other countries mentioned by Mr Gove are. He appears to be referring to a number of European countries which have some level of trading arrangements with the EU, without being customs union members, as examples of a possible post-Brexit situation for the UK.

As far as we’ve seen, Leave campaigners hardly mentioned the customs union in explicit terms at all, so there was generally little clarity about what leaving might mean in that regard.

Campaigners did often say the UK should be able to set its own trade policy, and this could imply leaving the customs union as well. Being part of a customs union can restrict a country’s ability to form an independent trade policy. At the same time, though, certain sectors of an economy can be left out of a customs agreement, so it’s not a straightforward in or out issue.

References to the single market and the UK’s broad trading relationship with the EU after Brexit are much more common.

Key figures in both campaigns often said Brexit meant leaving the single market

A fortnight before the referendum in 2016, then Prime Minister David Cameron (who was campaigning for Remain) said during an interview:

“The British public would be voting if we leave would be to leave the EU and leave the single market. We’d then have to negotiate a trade deal from outside with the European Union...  But if we leave the EU and the German finance minister was very clear, you’re either in or you’re out, leaving the single market, you’ve then got to negotiate a trade deal.”

Key Leave figures made similar points. Michael Gove was asked by the BBC’s Andrew Marr “Do you want us to say inside the single market?” to which he responded:

“No. We should be outside the single market. We should have access to the single market, but we should not be governed by the rules that the European Court of Justice imposes on us, which cost business and restrict freedom.”

Fellow Leave campaigner Boris Johnson later said he agreed with Mr Gove’s comments that the UK would be out of the single market following a Brexit vote. It is unclear what was meant by having “access” to the single market.

The government’s leaflet supporting Remain during the referendum said leaving meant there was a risk the UK could lose “full access” to the single market, but didn’t rule it out. It highlighted that, in terms of striking a trade deal if we left the EU, “no other country has managed to secure significant access to the Single Market” without significant trade-offs, including having to “follow EU rules over which they have no real say, pay into the EU, (and) accept EU citizens living and working in their country.

But given the sheer volume of debate around the EU referendum, it’s unsurprising that there were times when claims about our possible future relationship to the single market became unclear.

Some people have pointed out cases where other Leave campaigners appeared to suggest the UK should stay in the single market.

For example, Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan said during an interview in 2015 that: "To repeat, absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the single market".  

That is a different stance compared to the main claims of Leave campaigners, and Mr Hannan’s wording isn’t consistent across the interview itself either. Earlier on, he said "absolutely nobody is suggesting we would give up our position in the free market in Europe".

Again, because of this loose use of terminology, it’s easy to see why people would have taken different messages away after seeing this interview. On one reading, this is another case of talking about having a continued trading relationship with the EU after Brexit, as distinct from being a member of the single market.

There are also examples of leave campaigners claiming the UK could adopt a position similar to Norway—which is still part of the single market while not being an EU member.

Arron Banks, a founder of the Leave.EU campaign tweeted in November 2015 “Increasingly the Norway option looks the best for the UK”.

It’s fair to say that these examples are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to claims about the single market, but it makes the case again that the discussion before the referendum wasn’t entirely consistent on the kind of relationship the UK could have with the EU after leaving.

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