Liam Fox: Customs union would be ‘betrayal’ of Brexit voters

LONDON — Entering a customs union with the EU after Brexit would be “a betrayal of the voters in the referendum,” the U.K.’s International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said, insisting that Britain must have a “fully independent trade policy” enabling it to strike comprehensive free trade deals with other countries.

In a major speech in London on the U.K.’s future trade, Fox criticized the EU, saying that in many areas of global trade, in particular services and digital industries, it had been “unable to keep pace” with change. Outside the EU, the U.K. would “forge the way for liberalization” of those trade sectors.

“Remaining in a customs union of any type would only make sense if we were to abandon our global ambitions … tomorrow’s choices would be constrained by today’s status quo,” he said.

However, despite his criticism of the customs union option, Fox still called for a “tariff-free environment” in trade with the EU and the avoidance of a hard border on the island of Ireland.

Confronting criticisms from his former top official Martin Donnelly that his plan to leave the single market in favor of possible trade deals with non-EU countries amounted to rejecting a three-course meal “for the promise of a packet of crisps,” Fox said: “It’s unsurprising that those who spent a lifetime working with the EU would see moving away from the EU as being threatening,” and rejected that the U.K. faced a choice between free trade with the EU and free trade with other countries.

Donnelly spent time working for the EU in Brussels, as well as enjoying long career as a civil servant in London, culminating in becoming permanent secretary of Fox’s own Department for International Trade, a position he left last March.

Fox also urged those Conservative MPs backing an amendment to upcoming Brexit legislation that would bind the U.K. to seeking a customs union with the EU to wait for Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech on Friday before making a judgement.

“I hope they will understand that the drawbacks of a customs union … would remarkably hinder this country,” he said. Addressing Donnelly’s criticism that the U.K.’s Brexit goals were “something for a fairy godmother,” Fox said the U.K. needed “a hard-headed leader, not a fairy godmother.”

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