UK’s ‘unicorns’ leave EU bureaucrats shaking their heads

UK’s ‘unicorns’ leave EU bureaucrats shaking their heads

Close to two years since the historic British referendum decision to leave the European Union, the mid-term verdict has to be pretty damning. Ten months away from the formal divorce date on March 29, 2019, it has all the appearances of a collective national kamikaze car crash. A key EU leaders’ summit is on the horizon in June, but once again a combination of British domestic infighting, a profound lack of understanding of the issues at stake and weak leadership means Britain will not be ready. 

Brexit has become one big public turn-off, eliciting not the slightest wave of euphoric excitement, even from those who voted for it. Then again, try and keep the public interest juices flowing when debating the relative merits of “NCP” versus “Max Fac.” 
Yes, these two fascinating terms relate to the two primary options being battled over inside the British cabinet’s war committee for the future of the UK’s custom’s relationship with the European Union, post-Brexit — that is, should it go ahead. Prime Minister Theresa May has had to split her divided cabinet into two debating factions to try to reach a final decision as to which to select. 
NCP is a New Customs Partnership, favored by May, which in short would see Britain collecting tariffs for the EU on goods entering the UK and, depending on whether the UK had lower or higher tariffs than the EU, companies would have to either pay more or apply for a rebate. Max Fac is the maximum facilitation approach favored by many arch-Brexiteers like Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, which basically would use technology to reduce the burdens at borders.

But is either workable? Both would have huge costs. Britain’s senior customs official told a Parliamentary committee that the cost of the bureaucracy for Max Fac would be around £20 billion ($26.6 billion). Either option, the official stated, would take around three to five years to implement. Moreover, both options suffer the distinct disadvantage of being rejected out of hand by the EU with mutterings about “unicorns.”  


Leaving the customs union is particularly problematic in the case of the Northern Irish border. An intrinsic part of the Good Friday Agreement is that no hard border should exist. Setting up customs posts would be seen as breaching that 

Chris Doyle


Leaving the customs union is particularly problematic in the case of the Northern Irish border. An intrinsic part of the Good Friday Agreement is that no hard border should exist. Setting up customs posts would be seen as breaching that. Given that the government has ruled out being in both the single market and the customs union, the notion that a border of some form will not be recreated is flawed.  

Such are the challenges, it is not inconceivable that May will have to reverse her previous position of wanting to exit the customs union. Britain may seek to extend its time in the customs union beyond the transition period, which is scheduled to finish at the end of 2020. May and others are no longer resorting to the earlier mantra of “no deal is better than a bad deal.” They know a cliff-edge exit would be the biggest disaster of all the options.  

More than a few of the Brexiteers believe that, either through incompetence or as a result of deliberate intrigue, Britain might not even leave the customs union, thereby trashing their fantasies of free trade deals across the globe. Sir Ivan Rogers, the erstwhile British Ambassador to the EU who, unlike most, has a close to comprehensive knowledge of the issues, berates those “free traders who have only a hazy understanding about multilateral, regional and bilateral free trade deals, have never negotiated one — but know it’s straightforward, once one has left the EU.” 

Not one part of the Brexit negotiations and debate has progressed smoothly. The Brussels bureaucrats are left shaking their heads, wondering just what Britain’s choices will be; and who can blame them, even if their mock horror is more than a little self-serving? EU officials and politicians routinely accuse Britain of fantasy politics, while much of the British public accuses its government of nightmarish incompetence.  

The reality is that many in the UK do not want a divorce but an amicable reconfiguration of the country’s relationship with the EU. What many in Britain do not or cannot comprehend is that the EU is a 27-state club that has its rules, and you cannot just bypass these to access all its benefits. Few have summed the situation up better than Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel: “Before they (the British) were in with a lot of opt-outs; now they are out and want a lot of opt-ins.” 

May still survives, even if all her political obituaries were written long ago. The local elections in early May were not the disaster her enemies had hoped for. She will soldier on, wounded, the vultures circling. The suspicion is that, whilst most Conservative politicians might crave a new leader, all the serious candidates are happy for her to be the captain of the Titanic, not them.  

  • Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. Twitter: @Doylech
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