Wilson: Time for PM to play hard ball with EU over customs deal

Theresa May makes a statement to the House of Commons on Monday regarding last week's European Council meeting
Theresa May makes a statement to the House of Commons on Monday regarding last week's European Council meeting

Theresa May must stop “fudging” the issue of the UK’s future customs relationship with the EU and adopt a more hardline position with Brussels, a senior DUP figure has said.

Sammy Wilson’s remarks come ahead of a crunch meeting of the prime minister’s Cabinet at Chequers on Friday to thrash out the government’s plans for post-Brexit trade.

Downing Street is reportedly preparing to discuss a third model for handling customs after the UK leaves the EU, in a bid to overcome disagreement on the issue.

But the DUP’s Brexit spokesperson Mr Wilson has called on the prime minister to “start playing hard ball” with EU negotiators and “stop retreating” from her pledge to take the UK out of the single market and customs union.

Mrs May will bring together her Cabinet at her country residence to thrash out details of a white paper setting out the UK’s plans for areas such as trade.

Brexiteers oppose the PM’s favoured option of a customs partnership with the EU, which would see the UK collect tariffs set by the EU customs union on goods entering the country on behalf of the bloc.

Their “max fac” alternative – as favoured by the DUP – would, rather than scrapping customs checks, use technology to minimise the need for them.

Both options have been dismissed by the EU.

According to the BBC, No 10 has produced a third model for handling customs after Brexit believed to involve “alignment” with the EU in regulations covering trade in goods but a looser relationship for services.

But Mr Wilson told the News Letter that this suggestion had previously been dismissed out of hand by the European Parliament’s Brexit chief, Guy Verhofstadt.

“He ruled it out on the basis that you couldn’t separate the two things, goods and services,” Mr Wilson added.

“I don’t agree with his assessment, I think you probably could separate them, as something similar has been done in the trade deal Canada has with the EU.

“But I think Brussels will find every excuse to justify their demand that we stay totally in customs union and single market. So I think the EU will try and force the PM back to looking at total integration with the single market and customs union.”

Mr Wilson said his party’s view is that, in order to maximise the benefit of leaving the EU, the UK should remove itself completely from the customs union and single market.

“By continually offering these fudges to the EU, all the PM is doing is encouraging them to dig their heels in,” he added.

“She needs to come out and say ‘We said we were leaving the customs union and single market, now Brussels must start looking at a future trade deal that reflects that’.

“Brussels needs to start softening its stance and move away from the hard line it has adopted. They are adopting this line because of the way the PM is approaching these negotiations by retreating at every step.”

Mr Wilson’s remarks come as Tory infighting over Europe intensifies, after leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg told Mrs May she must deliver what she promised or risk the collapse of her government.