BREXIT BLOG: Hands off a customs arrangement and our ceramic industry

A couple of days ago former Trade Minister Greg Hands penned a piece for the Times on “why a customs union is the wrong choice for MPs”. The article was an interesting, eyebrow-raising read. It painted a picture of 2021 and the difficulties a fictional Stoke-on-Trent MP would have supporting our local ceramic industry if the UK’s trade policy was bound up in a customs union with the EU.

Designed to convince Parliament to ditch any support for a lasting customs union, the yarn spun by Greg was work of fantasy to rival anything JRR Tolkien or George RR Martin could manage.

For a start, the Chelsea and Fulham MP suggested that the EU wouldn’t bother to take trade remedy action against Chinese dumped ceramics. This is laughable, as it was the UK Government that resisted the implementation of anti-dumping duties for ceramic tiles in 2011 and abstained when the EU took action on tableware in 2013. Within just the last couple of weeks, the EU has initiated an investigation to take strong action against Chinese tableware companies who circumvent duties.  In contrast, when Greg was Trade Minister he proposed the formation of a new UK remedies system which would have been far less supportive of manufacturers than the EU equivalent.

Greg suggests that the EU’s focus would be on Dutch and German steel producers rather than our small ceramics firms. Again, the irony is that in recent years it was the UK Government’s proposals to reshape the EU Emissions Trading Scheme and renewables compensation that helped out steel at the expense of other sectors, such as ceramics. Brussels has tended to take a more holistic approach to industry than Westminster.

The article goes on to scaremonger about the potential re-invigoration of an EU-US trade deal and implications for NHS procurement. This is an astonishing criticism of a customs union – the UK Government was one of the strongest advocates for TTIP, while the European Parliament and civil society voiced concerns. Liam Fox has already consulted on a potential UK-USA deal which would be subject to the same sort of concessions as TTIP.

Our confederation’s board has discussed Brexit extensively in the last four years. We supported the Prime Minister’s deal because it was the only thing on the table in November. However, if a Parliamentary consensus were able to coalesce around a permanent customs arrangement this is something our board would strongly support, and for that matter a framework that doesn’t fall behind the EU in workers’ rights or protections for the environment. So, Greg’s use of our industry to try and nudge the Commons away from a Customs Union option is disingenuous to say the least. It’s this sort of proliferation of guff that is fuelling the current political crisis and driving the UK economy off a cliff edge.

Today we’re hosting a Sector Summit where our industry is coming together to consider the nuances of Brexit. Our country would be in a much stronger position if those in the Commons dropped their binary positions and appreciated the nuances too. Our sector, and many others need a deal and we need it soon.

We need MPs of all parties to put aside their narrow ideological and party differences. They need to work together at this time of national crisis for the good of the country to find a consensus. This requires give and take by everyone.  Jobs, businesses and investment are at stake.

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