Leaving the Customs Union is a fundamental element of Brexit

By David Harrison, Policy North president

The North of England is home to 15 million people and over a million private sector businesses.

If it was a country, it would be one of the largest economies in Europe; similar in size to Belgium.

Its economy is worth over £300bn and makes up 19 per cent of total UK output, but it has the potential to be so much more after Brexit, as long as we leave the Customs Union.

If we do not, there is no point in leaving the EU. In fact, we might as well just stay in, if they would let us. 

For being “out” of the EU but having to abide by its tariffs and being unable to strike new trade deals with the rest of the world defies logic.

With 90 per cent of global growth over the next 10-15 years set to be from non-EU countries, it makes no sense to lock ourselves out of these lucrative markets.

Doing so would deny the North of England this unique opportunity of becoming the globally trading powerhouse it once was. This in turn would stop Brexit from benefitting every UK region and not just the over-heated South East. 

Across the North West, North East and Yorkshire and Humber, just 11 of 125 areas voted Remain.Most of those that did were in metropolitan city centre areas, with high student populations. While Manchester may be enjoying an ongoing resurgence, many parts of the Greater North are struggling.

Decades of EU membership correspond with an ever-widening gap between the North and London and the South East in terms of wages, skills and growth.

Gross Value Added per head of 100 is 74 in the North East, 80.7 in Yorkshire and the Humber and 85.4 in the North West. This compares to 109.8 in the South East and 172.1 in London.

Brexit voters of Hartlepool, Doncaster, Carlisle, Blackpool and Rochdale were not just voting to leave, but for change; a change that, under Labour’s deceptive take on Brexit, would not be possible.

I would urge caution from Jeremy Corbyn or any other politicians seeking to dilute or derail Brexit. The referendum was many people’s only chance to have a truly democratic vote. For some politicians to then treat the result with such disdain highlights problems with the political class that led many to vote for Brexit in the first place.

Let’s be frank, politicians aren’t exactly top of the popularity league. The London-centric, patronising view many remoaning MPs are now showing, risks further alienation and distance from the electorate. Certainly the disconnect between the North and Westminster feels wider than ever. 

Donald Trump’s remarkable rise is a prime example of the public’s fatigue with self-preserving, career politicians who hide behind a polished, politically correct façade.

America’s choice of president was a vote for a non-politician. His supporters saw him as a trusted businessman who had lost as well as won in business. He is the antithesis of what’s gone before in recent years at the White House.  

In our own historic vote, people knew what they were voting for, even without the exact details.

I was surprised by the outright hostility shown to us by our “partners” after our decision, however.

The behaviour of the EU heavies is all the more scandalous given that they are not representative of citizens of other EU countries – many of which are also in the throes of political apathy. Many people on the Continent are, like us, sick and tired of being ignored. 

At Policy North, our aim is to formulate ideas about free trade in the North of England and anywhere in the world that will trade with us. Right now, the North is being hampered by not being able to broker free trade deals, with anyone at all. 

Unlike Britain, the US does trade deals wherever it can. It also has more free trade zones than any other country in the world. These are also not possible in the EU as it seeks to protect against cheaper, non-EU goods. That protection means its citizens pay more for goods than they need to.  

The business case for a Great North Free Port, that could turn future free trade agreements into jobs and economic growth, is compelling and achievable.

Trade is the key to a northern renaissance and the rebalancing of the economy. Merely exporting public sector jobs to the North is neither sustainable nor imaginative. In reality, it acts as a restraint on regional enterprise and innovation. It also does little to arrest the deprivation and lack of opportunities that still remain in some areas as a legacy of industrial decline.

The fact that the EU trading block we are currently tied into has grown at a slower pace than any other section of the world for a generation or more hasn’t made things any easier for the North. Yet despite being hampered by rules that suit other countries but not necessarily our own needs, the UK overall has managed to maintain its position as the 5th largest trading country in the world. We could have achieved so much more – North and South - if free to do our own deals. 

Cross-border trade between business people is built on trust – trust then grows with every deal and friendship might even develop. Business people divided by nations often have lots in common with each other. It is only the respective politicians and miscellaneous bureaucrats that supposedly represent their interests which accentuate differences.

Entrepreneurs don’t want wars or physical domination of territories; or taxes on imported goods. Nor are we interested in the myriad of rules imposed on citizens by those who supposedly know what’s best for us – often who have slowly been put in positions where they take no risks but get large rewards.

We simply want to sell our goods to someone else at a profit, and thus employ people and grow. So, wherever possible, we should miss out the bureaucrats, on either side of deals, and avoid tribalism.

The way the EU is acting towards us is not a big enough reason on its own to leave the club. But it is an obvious indicator of an underlying problem. The mandarins are losing power and are trying their very best to cling onto it.

We should leave the EU primarily because we have lots in common with many other trading nations, as well as the great countries inside Europe, all of which export more to us, than we to them. In fact, we export only around 18 per cent of GDP to the EU.

This means leaving the Customs Union – a fundamental element of Brexit.

There is no going back on the will of the UK population. The sooner the politicians here and in Brussels wake up to that reality, the better for all of us.

David Harrison is president of Policy North with over 40 years’ experience in business.