The parliamentary passage of the Brexit bill remains stormy with Monday’s Lords vote in favour of an amendment to keep the UK in the EU customs union. The Commons get their chance to vote on this critical amendment on Thursday.
While some commentators have focused on the technocratic implications of the being in or out of a customs union, others have focused on this as an example of unelected officials and politicians attempting to overrule the will of the people. But what do ‘the people’ really think about customs unions?
At NatCen, we’ve been asking the British public about what they want from Brexit since the referendum took place as part of our What UK Thinks: EU project. In September 2016 and February 2017, we asked a set of questions about what people want from Brexit, including their views on ‘allowing companies based in the EU to sell goods and services freely in Britain in return for allowing British companies to sell goods and services freely in the EU’.
Based on this, it could be said that the British public are strongly in favour of some form of EU customs union, or at least very strongly in favour of the trading conditions it creates.
In fact, our recent work on free trade shows a public that appears increasingly in favour of the perceived benefits of free trade globally:
Of course, entering a customs union with the EU would fetter the UK’s ability to negotiate with countries in the rest of the world, so it's not clear what the will of the people might really be when it comes to trading agreements.
And this highlights the paradox at the heart of the vote to leave the EU.
The British public fundamentally do not accept the need for trade-offs in the Brexit negotiations, most evident in relation to the perceived benefits of free trade in the EU for the perceived harms associated with free movement, where our 2017 data shows that 88% of Leave voters are in favour of free trade within the EU:
The Brexit ‘the people’ want is both a hard and a soft Brexit, a deal that is simply not on the table, whatever the outcomes of Thursday’s vote.