What Do Voters Make of the Customs Debate?

Posted on 3 May 2018 by John Curtice

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?

John Curtice

By John Curtice

John Curtice is Senior Research Fellow at NatCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator on the What UK Thinks: EU website.

6 thoughts on “What Do Voters Make of the Customs Debate?

  1. Tony, the UK, as all countries, exists in an increasingly globalised and inter-locking international political economy. No country is increasing in sovereignty as that is now pooled more and more through various international bodies, such as the UN, NATO, WTO, IMF, World Bank, ASEAN, and many more at various levels. The UK cannot simply “take back control”, as the Suez Crisis proved.
    The only way to increase your influence is to group together in various ways with other governments and non-state actors. A case in point is foreign policy. The EU has been very influential in a behind-the-scenes manner, in getting the Iran Nuclear deal agreed under the Obama administration, for example.

    Same goes for the Customs Union. The entire world is carved up into FTAs and customs unions, as countries have responded to voters’ protectionist tendencies. NAFTA, ASEAN, Mercosur, and many others all “lock” the world up and have reduced free trade. Not all of the EU’s tariffs are high – many are not, and the EU has 720+ free trade agreements with other countries, and is currently concluding FTAs with Singapore, Armenia, and Viet Nam, to name a few.

    The Customs Union grew out of the Single Market in a process known as “spillover”, which means that once you agree to a harmonised regulatory framework, you have to also eventually have to harmonise your tariffs. This the EU does via the Common External Tariff. The Channel Tunnel, for example, was designed and built to have tariff-free and regulatory-free access from the EU to UK. There is no infrastructure there, and no space to build it, if we leave these two vital parts of the EU.

    As for our currency, the UK has control over it, but again, the value of the pound is to a large degree set on the international currency markets. And our laws are our own, but within the confines of the international legal framework, such as the ICC and the ICJ.Report

  2. The Customs Union is a total distraction that Remainers are using to conflate the real issues. Do you you want to; pass your own laws, be judged by your own courts, spend your own money, make your own foreign policy decisions and sign your own trade deals.
    The one thing I never understand about Remainers: why EU clever, UK stupid?Report

  3. Voters need to get up to speed on the CU in a hurry. It’s really not about you bring bottles home from holiday. That’s a lame as people who used to argue that we needed to join the euro so that they did not have to change money for their skiing trip.

    The CU is a system of protectionist tariffs. Countries that lack competitiveness in some area of trade sometimes impose tariffs on imports – paid for by thgeir own consumers – in order to raise the price of imports artificially so that uncompetitive domestic producers can compete. This helps domestic producers but raises the costs of inputs to your own economy.

    EU tariffs are even more problematic, because instead of the UK imposing tariffs on imports to protect UK jobs, the EU imposes tariffs in order to protect the least competitive parts of EU production, which mostly means mid-tech manufacturing and especially agriculture. These tariffs do not protect jobs in the UK because our high-tech manufacturing, services and efficient agriculture don’t benefit much from them.

    Yet the UK consumer pays an average tariff on *all* imports from outside the EU, and as high as 60% on dairy goods to protect jobs that are in the EU mainly outside the UK. And as time goes on, the EU takes less and less of our trade – currently 45% and falling – so we will pay tariffs to the EU on a *growing* share of our trade that represents our trade with the World outside the EU.

    Leave the CU and get rid of these tariffs, and we will be able to admit food and other raw materials at World costs, without paying this extra tax to the EU, and in turn countries outside the EU will be more willing to sign FTAs with the UK.

    Stay in the CU and we will continue to pay these extra taxes to the EU, the EU will continue to have jurisidiction over UK trade, we won’t be able to sign FTAs with countries outside the EU, and we won’t even have a vote on EU tariff levels in the future – not that having a vote in the past ever did us much good, but this will be even worse.Report

  4. never read such twaddle,this is from a supposed intellectual person. John Curtice seems to be of the view that us mere mortals have no grasp of any detail of the structure of the EU and all it entails,or maybe he,s looking at the wrong opinion polls. To quote what the “UK thinks” and post it in such a manner is not from someone living in the real world and not representative of the depth of understanding that the public have on the whole issue.Maybe he has heard there,s a vacancy in the Upper House!Report

    1. Robert, the irrefutable implication of the various polls is that the average voter does not have a clear idea what the customs union is or how it differs from the single market. I assume this upsets you because Brexiters (and you sound like one) are falling back on the argument that in voting for Brexit, people voted to leave the customs union and knew what it was – and therefore that we must leave the Customs Union to keep faith with the voters. That is looking like a weak position and it doesn’t look like there’s enough votes in Parliament to see it through.Report

      1. Voters were asked one single question. They had to know that in/out entrained other decisions in greater and greater detail. That’s why A50 allows two years for negotiation – details.

        To say that they didn’t actually vote to leave the CU is pretty meaningless. They were not asked that question, so we can’t actually deduce anything from their silence.

        We answered *one* question and then handed implementation back to the UK Government. Whether or not to stay in the CU should be decided by what is best for the UK economy, not what one person decides to conclude from the fact that the voters did not vote on some other question, or what some campaigner did or did not say would follow frolm an in/out vote.Report

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