It appears that the question of what customs arrangements the UK should have with the European Union after 2020 is becoming the first crunch issue in the negotiations about Britain’s future relationship with the EU. The Cabinet is reported to be having difficulty in reaching a decision on what arrangement the UK should seek, while it is not clear that either of the alternatives it is considering will be acceptable to the EU. Meanwhile, not only has the government been defeated in the Lords on the issue but it seems that it cannot necessarily be confident that it can carry the Commons on it either. Theresa May’s attempt to steer her government safely through the shoals of Brexit is, it seems, facing its biggest challenge yet.
We might anticipate that these developments mean that the customs debate is an issue on which the public have clear and consistent views. Perhaps, too, Remain voters clearly line up in favour of retaining a customs union with the European Union, while Leave voters are firmly of the opposite view. However, it is far from clear that this is the case.
The debate is, after all, a rather remote and abstract one. The only consequences of the EU customs union that are immediately apparent to most voters are that when they return from a EU country their baggage is not subject to potentially being checked by a customs officer and that they can bring in as much alcohol and as many cigarettes as they wish (so long as they are for personal use), albeit not tax free. In contrast, arguments about the need to maintain the cross-border flow of supply chains and the merits of being able to negotiate trade agreements with non-EU countries, let alone the distinctions that have been drawn between ‘the’ customs union and ‘a’ customs union and between a ‘customs arrangement’ and a ‘customs partnership’ are doubtless new to many voters.
Consequently, one feature of the polling and survey evidence to date is that few pollsters and researchers have dared attempt to ask voters specifically about what customs arrangement the UK should have with the EU, doubtless for fear that their questions might be met with incredulity. Even then the questions that have been asked have been relatively broad brush in character. Nobody has addressed the fine distinctions that are currently exciting the passions of the various protagonists in the customs debate.
Such evidence as we do have is far from consistent in its message. In the research that we ourselves conducted in late 2016 and early 2017 about what kind of Brexit deal voters wanted, we found that there was popular support for having customs checks when people are entering the UK from the EU. We asked whether people supported the idea of ‘reintroducing customs checks on people and goods coming into Britain from the EU’. In the more recent reading, taken in early 2017, as many as 69% said that they were in favour while 15% were opposed. Even amongst Remain voters, rather more than half (54%) backed the idea, though Leave voters were almost unanimous in their support. These figures were little different from those obtained the previous autumn.
On the other hand, 47% told BMG in January that they agreed that ‘The UK should remain a member of the customs union’, while only 14% disagreed. While 63% of Remain voters agreed and only 4% disagreed, Leave voters were more or less evenly divided with 30% agreeing and 28% disagreeing. Similarly, in April of last year YouGov found that 57% believed that ‘Britain should try to remain a member of the European Customs Union’ and only 17% thought that it should not. These polls suggest that being part of the customs union is a relatively popular idea.
Meanwhile, there have also been a few questions on a number of polls that have asked voters whether they support or oppose being in or out of both the single market and the customs union, without differentiating between the two. These, in contrast to the questions discussed above, have often found a more even balance of opinion. Survation asked such a question three times in the summer of last year and secured majorities of between five and 20 points in favour of membership of the single market and the customs union. At the same time, twelve months ago Panelbase asked respondents whether they supported ‘leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union’ and found voters to be evenly divided with 41% in favour and 44% opposed. Meanwhile, using a very different approach, research on attitudes towards Brexit undertaken by the Centre for Social Investigation at Nuffield College, Oxford, found that if it helped secured an overall deal with the EU over a half of voters (56%) would be willing to drop the demand that ‘The UK must be given full access for exporting goods and services to the EU’, a demand that would imply, inter alia, some kind of close customs arrangement.
When the results of polls about a topic are divergent, it is often a sign that many voters do not have firm views about a subject – their answers are easily influenced by exactly how the question is posed. Indeed, we might note that as many as 40% of all voters said to BMG in January that they neither agreed or disagreed with the idea of remaining in the customs union or that they did not know. The current debates in Westminster and Whitehall are, it seems, occurring in something of a vacuum so far as public opinion is concerned – but that, perhaps, is why the debate is proving to be so intense?