Richard North, 26/04/2018  

Today, the House of Commons will address a motion, in the name of a number of select committee chairs, which "calls on the Government to include as an objective in negotiations on the future relationship between the UK and the EU the establishment of an effective customs union between the two territories".

In anticipation of the debate, the library has published a briefing paper (which can be downloaded from here) entitled "A UK-EU customs union" and written by staffer Dominic Webb.

This briefing paper, unfortunately, will serve to fuel the debate and, in the nature of things, a number of MPs will rely on it. This is unfortunate because, if one needed yet another illustrations of why the Brexit debate has sunk to such low levels, this is it.

The problem with the paper is that, despite coming from the library research service, it doesn't actually offer any research as such – certainly not in the sense that we are seeing analysis based on verifiable facts referenced to reputable primary sources.

Mr Webb's idea of "research" is to rely on a quote Sam Lowe from the Centre of European Reform, an extract from a written opinion delivered by Dr Peter Holmes and an extract from an article by Henry Newman in Conservative Home.

Webb also asserts that, "a customs union alone will not achieve frictionless trade", adding that, "membership of the single market is also needed for this". For this, he relies on a statement by Michel Barnier following a working lunch in London with David Davis in Brussels on 5 February of this year.

Specifically, Webb is using Barnier's comment that, "without a customs union- and being outside the Single Market - barriers to trade and goods and services are unavoidable" – a tendentious statement that hardly qualifies as fact.

Furthermore, while barriers to trade might arise from the absence of a customs union agreement between the UK and EU (such as, say, rules of origin levies), barriers to trade per se does not necessarily affect the degree to which trade might be considered "frictionless".

In the example cited, I refer to rules of origin. If these require the calculation and payment of a sum by importers to the tax authorities and payments are made monthly by electronic transfers on the basis of audited volumes of trade, then there is no impact on the flow of goods across the relevant borders.

Thus, the conclusion drawn by Webb is flawed. It is not supported by the reference he cites which, in any event, is opinion-based rather than drawing on verifiable fact.

Further on, however, we get Webb relying on a piece by two MPs, Yvette Cooper and Nicky Morgan, in the Huffington Post. He then goes to the UK Trade Policy Observatory blog, an unsupported claim by Lord Kerr in a House of Lords debate, an extract from a minority report from a select committee report and a Telegraph article from 20 April 2018.

We also see references to reports from the Institute for Government and the Institute of Directors.

Trawling through these references, there is not one which could qualify as a primary source, making Webb's production a litany of largely unsupported opinion with a remarkable absence of factual evidence.

In assessing whether the UK should enter into a customs union with the EU, there is no dispute that the purpose of so doing is to buy us frictionless trade. Thus, one might expect Mr Webb to address that point and provide supporting evidence.

To test the thesis that a customs union might reduce trade friction, the obvious thing to do, firstly, would be look at situations where customs unions had been in place, and assess whether they had any effect. For that, we have good evidence from the EEC itself, to which I have referred. And then, we have significant amount of evidence on the effect of the Turkey-EU customs union.

In both situations, we see that the customs union has no impact in terms of securing "frictionless" trade. This is not something on offer from Mr Webb. From there, though we would need to look for a situation where one or more countries with land borders with EU Member States are part of the Single Market but not part of a customs union. In fact, there is only Norway at its border with Sweden, and that has some problems in that agriculture and fisheries are not part of the agreement.

With the experience we have, however, it cannot be said that the system, as it stands, offers completely "frictionless" trade. Nevertheless, it would be possible to identify the points of friction and ascertain whether, if the general system was applied to the UK (and, in particular, the Irish border), the term "frictionless" could be valid.

Here also we have no offerings from Mr Webb. And nor can he supply any evidence from a country outside the EU which is part of the Single Market, and has a customs union agreement with the EU. This is unsurprising – there isn't one.

Thus, as if having an almost completely valueless debate wasn't bad enough, the House of Commons library, as represented by Mr Webb is set to make it worse. Webb has nothing sensible to offer MPs – simply that shoddy, unsubstantiated litany of opinion. It proves nothing and takes the arguments no further.

And from one of the sources on which Mr Webb relies, Allie Renison of the IoD, we got yesterday, this priceless offering. "No one making the case for a customs union (full or partial) has ever said it is the only thing needed to keep Irish border open", she says. "But [the] Swiss do have a hard customs border for commercial goods because they aren't in one".

That the Swiss do indeed have a hard border is news to many, but brought home by the recent circulation of a picture of its Geneva border post (top). But to suggest that such posts exist because of the lack of a customs union is utterly bizarre, with not the slightest evidential support. On the other hand, it is indicative of the tenor of the argument coming from the IoD – and a graphic warning of the unreliability of this source.

In his briefing, Webb's reference to the IoD thus encapsulates a worrying trend – where the idea of "research" comes down to citing opinions from prestige sources, with not the slightest attempt to provide good quality evidence. This is the way that journalism plies its trade and now the disease seems to be spreading.

However, when today, MPs join the debate on the customs union, it is unlikely that many will understand how ill-served they are by the HoC library. In any case, many have already shown no capacity for judging the quality of a research brief, or even any ability properly to exploit such a brief.

In this event, therefore, the poor quality of work they are being given will doubtless go unremarked, as indeed does the singularly low grade of the material from the likes of the IfG and the IoD. But, if the traditional providers or research material can't rise to the occasion, what chance do MPs actually have of making a serious contribution to any debate?

It looks, therefore, that we a set for an illustration of the GiPo principle – garbage in, parliament out. If we replaced Parliament with a speak your weight machine, it would probably make more sense. As for the library - it would be better off distributing copies of the Beano.

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