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Brexit: a temporary customs union?

While the local elections in England and Northern Ireland last week were devastating for the Conservative Party, as they lost more than 1300 Councilors, the cross-party talks continued. In an attempt to strike a compromise deal on Brexit with the Labour Party, Theresa May will outline plans for a “comprehensive but temporary customs arrangement”. This arrangement should last until the next general election in 2022. However, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell already said that Labour want “a permanent and comprehensive customs union”. Similarly, May’s own Conservative party is divided on the idea of a customs union and the Conservative Member of Parliament and Chairman of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, Sir Graham Brady, stated that a customs union deal must be resisted.

However, Theresa May still intends to bring forward the Withdrawal Agreement before the European elections to avoid giving a firm date for her departure. However, David Lidington, May’s de facto deputy Prime Minister, said that it is certain that the UK will take part in the European elections on 23 May. The ratification of a Brexit deal will not be concluded in time to avoid the election. Therefore, the UK is under legal obligation to hold elections. The only other option would be not to hold elections and leave the European Union on 1 June without a deal, but this scenario does not seem plausible anymore.

The new goal now is to prevent UK MEPs from actually taking their seats when the new European Parliament meets in early July. Lidington said: “We will be redoubling our efforts and talks with MPs of all parties to try to make sure that the delay after that is as short as possible. Ideally, we’d like to be in a situation where those MEPs never actually have to take their seats at the European Parliament, certainly to get this done and dusted by the summer recess.”

Next steps?

So, the UK will participate in the European elections. The biggest question now is what will be the impact of the UK MEPs on the next European Parliament (EP)? As the chance is small that the British MEPs will be in the EP the whole five years, their votes will still count and may swing results. In addition, MEPs of other Member States could make use of their British counterparts to get access to important positions before they leave. For example the ECR and the EFDD group have a lot British members, but the British themselves are unlikely to take up functions since they will leave the EP after a while, allowing smaller national parties to benefit from this. What about the UK itself? May will have to bear more and more pressure to leave. As she stated herself before, she would leave after an agreement was delivered but the National Conservative Convention will hold an Extraordinary General Meeting already on 15 June to hold a vote of confidence in Theresa May as party leader.