Richard North, 24/04/2018  

There was a reason why Spaak and Monnet elected to push for a customs union in order to eliminate tariffs amongst the original Six. It was for the same reason that Bismark established his zollverein. In order to administer common external tariffs – a defining feature of a customs union - a central government was needed.

In Bismark's case, this was his instrument for uniting Germany. In the case of the founding fathers of the EU, it was their instrument for uniting Europe – with the added advantage that the income collected by the member states from the external tariffs could be used to finance the institutions of what was to become the EEC.

The legal base for the customs union was established in 1957 with the Treaty of Rome, with provision made for a phased reduction in tariffs until they were entirely eliminated from internal trade. This was achieved on 1 June 1968, two years ahead of schedule, at which point the customs union was complete.

That, coincidentally, was almost exactly fifty years ago – the event occurring before the majority of legacy media journalists were actually born. Later this year, perhaps, we may see celebrations to mark its fiftieth anniversary.

Now, through the modern miracle of the internet and the application of a technique called "research", it is possible for people to discover things about the world before they were born, and before they achieved sentience – although in the case of many journalists, that has yet to happen. Nevertheless, the product of this "research" thingy is often called "history".

In the annals of the history of what is known as the European Union, it can be seen – as we found out using the "research" thingy – that the completion of the customs union did not result in the abolition of customs controls. This should come as no surprise: the main purpose was to promote the political integration of Europe. 

That notwithstanding, a lot more goes on at borders than just the collection of tariff revenues and, as systems have improved over time, tariffs have been paid by importers in the same way they pay other taxes – periodically, and direct to the central agency. There is little in the way of revenue collection at the border.

Despite this, even by the early 1980s, customs checks were still common at internal borders in the EEC, more than a decade after the completion of the customs union. By 1984, Customs formalities at the French-Belgian border were taking an average of 80 minutes for every lorry going through. Each hour's delay cost between £2.50 and £3.25. The overall cost of customs controls was therefore in the region of £1.7 billion (at 1980 prices) – between 5-10 percent of the value of the goods transported across frontiers.

This, obviously, had to stop and, to cut a very long story short, in 1985 we saw the adoption of the Single European Act. Article 13 added measures to establish an "internal market". This was "an area without internal frontiers in which the free movement of goods, persons, services and capital is ensured in accordance with the provisions of this Treaty", the work to be completed by 31 December 1992.

It was this, therefore – the internal market – which brought about the abolition of internal frontiers and with them the abolition of customs checks.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I very rarely use swearwords in the text of these blogposts but, knowing something of the history of both the customs union and the single market, one has to ask what kind of fuckwit writes something like this:
What is a customs union? This is an agreement by a group of countries, such as the EU, to all apply the same tariffs on imported goods from the rest of the world and, typically, eliminate them entirely for trade within the group. By doing this, they can avoid the need for costly and time-consuming customs checks during trade between members of the union.
In fact, this is Dan Roberts, styled as "Brexit policy editor" for the Guardian. And to compound his stupidity, he adds:
Asian shipping containers arriving at Felixstowe or Rotterdam, for example, need only pass through customs once before their contents head to markets all over Europe. Lorries passing between Dover and Calais avoid delay entirely.
Paying lip-service to the fact that there are other things aside from tariffs, the idiot Roberts then goes on to say that, "Customs are not the only checks that count – imports are also scrutinised for conformity with trading standards regulations, security and immigration purposes – but they do play an important role in determining how much friction there is at the border".

The thing is, though – they don't, not in the sense that Roberts means. In actually, there is a lot more that goes on, including checks for smuggling, VAT invasion, substitution fraud and much else. But very little of this goes on at the borders, and virtually nothing of the tariff collection system. Nevertheless, says Roberts:
A strict customs regime at Dover or between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would lead to delays which will be costly for business and disruptive for travellers. Just-in-time supply chains in industries such as carmaking could suffer. An Irish peace process built around the principle of entirely unfettered travel between north and south could be jeopardised.
By this, he means tariff collection. And he's talking rubbish. A customs union agreed between the EU and the UK, applicable after Brexit, would not have the slightest impact on the flow of traffic across the external borders. It would neither speed it up, nor slow it down. It would be a complete irrelevance.

To eliminate customs checks would require – as we see from the history of the EU – the inclusion of the UK in the internal market. This has been done partially with the Eftas/EEA states, but since they haven't included agriculture and fisheries in their agreement, and maintain duty disparities on tobacco and alcohol, trade it not entirely frictionless. However, it is the basis for a system which could apply the UK, and especially at the Irish border.

That notwithstanding, it is a matter of absolute certainty that a customs union would not achieve anything. Furthermore, as we keep saying, the EEA agreement makes provision for the abolition of tariffs. And if rules of origin (ROO) become a problem, there are ways of dealing with them, the answer to which is not a customs union.

What then, we must ask, is going on with the legacy media, where it cannot get its collective brain around the simple concepts of "customs union" and "internal market", and the implications of each? There is something terribly wrong when then such matters elude them.

The point here is that it isn't just the Guardian that's getting it wrong – not by any means. In The times, we have a leading article which has this:
The benefit of a customs union is that it would reduce friction in trade between the UK and the EU. There would be no need for customs officers in Calais or Ireland to stop lorries and make sure that importers were paying the difference between British and EU duties, as those duties would be the same. Other countries outside a customs union with the EU, like Switzerland, have customs posts near the border for checks.
Never mind that, on the Turkish border with EU states – within a customs union – there are borders posts. This is unexpurgated drivel, matched only by the self-important pomposity from the BBC which tells us that a customs union means that businesses "like those in the car industry that rely on complex manufacturing supply chains" can "move stuff from one country to another throughout the EU without added costs or delays".

Yet, for our photograph, we show the border crossing between Vaals, South Limburg, Netherlands, and Aachen, in Germany. The date is December 1973, more than five years after the completion of the EEC's customs union – the same year that the UK joined the EEC. Almost inconceivably, you also had to show your passport once you crossed the border into the Federal Republic of Germany.

I have many more such photographs from the same period. The evidence is there - all you have to do is look for it. The EEC customs union didn't get rid of border checks. The checkpoints were still there and being photographed long after the customs union was officially complete.

The lack of diligence on the part of the media, and its impact on the Brexit debate, is unforgivable. The journalists producing the rubbish we're seeing should hang their heads in shame. Their employers should wind up their publications and do something useful, like sweeping the streets.

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