Customs Union

Conservatives block my call for the County Council to ‘speak up for Devon’ in the debate over the European Single Market and Customs Union – but it will produce an impact assessment

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Union and EU flagsAs the Brexit negotiations finally entered the phase of talking about the UK’s future economic relationship with the EU, I asked the County Council this week to speak up for Devon’s interests in the debate about whether we should stay in the European Single Market and Customs Union.

However my motion that we should stay in both arrangements as we leave the EU, because of the benefits they bring to Devon’s economy and the damage which leaving them will cause, was remitted to the Cabinet who will report back to the next Council meeting in February.

I argued that the motion should have been discussed this week. Pointing out that the DUP, SNP and Mayor of London had come forward to speak for their regional interests, I criticised our MPs for failing to speak as a group for Devon and the South West’s obvious interests in keeping close economic relationships with Europe. I said the Council should speak up and make it clear to Government which kind of Brexit we wanted. All opposition councillors (Liberal Democrats, Labour, Independent and Green) supported my call to debate the motion in the meeting, but the Tory majority voted to postpone the motion for two months.

One good thing did come from the proposal – Council leader, John Hart, promised that Cabinet would look at the evidence on the impact of Brexit on Devon in coming to their recommendation for the next meeting. Although I argued that we have enough evidence to make a judgement now (see below), it will be useful for the Council to do this work. Let’s hope their ‘impact assessment’ is a bit more thorough than the Government’s!

Note. I am fully aware that the majority of voters in Seaton & Colyton, and in Devon, supported leaving the EU. This is not about that decision – it’s about getting sensible terms for the future economic links. Some points I would have made if I’d been allowed to speak fully on this:

  • By value, the SW has the highest proportion of goods exported to the EU of any UK region, rising above 60% in 2015 compared to national average of 44%. The value of SW goods exports to the EU has increased markedly in the last few years. We have actually had a positive trade balance, unlike many regions.
  • 70% of Exeter’s and 68% of Plymouth’s exports go to the EU. These are the two highest figures of any UK cities.
  • Exeter University is one of the top recipients of EU grants. While tourism to Devon has benefited from the weak pound which Brexit has caused, recent figures have shown that international students bring greater economic benefits to Exeter than tourism does.
  • While we do not have figures for the losses of EU and international staff from Devon’s NHS and care system, our officers have stated that this is a major concern.
  • Farming has a larger share in Devon than in the rest of the UK economy. Neil Parish MP says that ‘The EU is a vital market for British agriculture and food & drink exports. EU member states account for 7/8 of the UK’s top agricultural export markets. In 2015, 93% of all British beef exports went to the EU – a trade worth £320 million.’

Given all this information, it is very clear what kind of relationship with the EU is in Devon’s interests:

  • Neil believes that for agriculture, ‘it’s crucial the UK retains a close relationship with the EU market’.
  • Meurig Raymond, president of the NFU has backed a temporary customs union with the EU after Brexit.
  • Exeter University as part of the Russell Group of leading universities is lobbying to remain part of the EU Framework Programmes for research, to reassure EU staff that they have a future in the UK and to ensure new EU staff can be recruited.
  • Remaining in the Single Market is vital for selling goods and services to the EU, and to ensure we recruit and retain sufficient EU workers to support our NHS, social care, farming and hospitality sectors – new figures show that migration into the SW has fallen more sharply than in the SE.
  • The Customs Union is crucial for all our exporters, whether in manufacturing, farming or services, to avoid bureaucratic obstacles to trade which will hit small businesses hardest.
  • The Centres for Cities estimates that a ‘hard’ Brexit, leaving these arrangements, will roughly double the hit to Devon’s and Exeter’s economies compared to ‘soft’ Brexit.

There is no point in developing a SW strategy for productivity and growth, if we don’t first stop the harm that leaving the Single Market and Customs Union will cause.