EU & Brexit

A Customs Union is nothing more than a device to buck the Referendum decision to leave the EU.


David Owen continues to speak out against those arguing for the UK to stay in the Customs Union:


In all the controversy over why it is very important for the UK not to concede a Customs Union of general application, as distinct from a deal over Northern Ireland, I also recommend reading an article (24 April) in the Daily Telegraph, “Canada would never cede trade control” by Michael Taube, an aide to a former Canadian  Prime Minister Stephen Harper, about why Canada would never sign up for a Customs Union with the US.

Northern Ireland is a special case for the EU as is the Norwegian/Swedish border and the position of Switzerland bordering on many EU countries. Also the border between East and West Germany from 1956 to 1989.

It is beyond comprehension that the EU should show such insensitivity in their handling to date of the delicate border issue between the North and South of Ireland. It is as if the 27 countries are politically blind to all the extraordinary set of arrangements that have between our two countries since 1923. This is not an arrangement that can be left to Dublin to dictate their position to the European Commission and for that to then become holy writ in negotiations with the UK.

The political judgement of the Heads of all the Governments are needed and so far President Tusk speaks openly as the voice of only one country. This situation must not continue and in their heart of hearts European politicians know this. Soon we in the UK will have to take our case to the people of the EU’s member states and call on old friendships and understanding when many of them face deeply sensitive political issues. Different from but not dissimilar to those the British face over Northern Ireland. Article 8 governs just as much as Article 50 when it comes to good neighbours for the decades ahead.

Not even Norway, let alone its EFTA partner, Switzerland, have a Customs Union with the EU. The Turkish customs union means signing away access for third countries to the Turkish market and the EU is not ready to contemplate anything different for the UK. Now that the chief negotiator under the infamous Article 50 procedure  has flatly rejected any possibility of a special customs union deriding the Government’s proposed customs partnership, it behoves MPs to level with their constituents and admit the reality.


I recommend the article produced by Brexit Central: ‘The EU is cynically exploiting the Irish border issue to try to keep Britain under the thumb.’

Commenting on stories over the weekend of 21 and 22 April 2018 on whether or not Prime Minister May will compromise on the UK continuing in the Customs Union, David Owen says:
     “I recommend the article produced by Brexit Central entitled ‘The EU is cynically exploiting the Irish border to try to keep Britain under the thumb’. Click here:
     “The article is a rational assessment of the Irish  border problem.  While pondering on it, it is worth remembering that the Australian Foreign Minister, who wants a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the UK, as does Canada,  as soon as the planned final stage of our negotiations has been reached on the EU timetable of the end of December 2020, nevertheless warned that Australia will not be able to do this if we are in a conventional Customs Union with the EU.
     “The Irish Government is in danger of damaging, in a very fundamental way, Anglo-Irish relations if it continues to rule out a combination of flexible political and viable technological ways of resolving the problem.
     “Most British people accept that a referendum is there in law which can be called to settle the issue of North-South unity, but they will not accept – and nor should they – that the people of Northern Ireland can be politically bullied by the European Commission and Dublin, let alone threatened by some that there will be renewed IRA activity about the siting in Northern Ireland of technical and human information gathering to avoid abuse of a post-Brexit border.
     “Also recommended is Shanker Singham’s article, ‘How to fix the Irish border problem’.  Click here:

“…There is a group in Whitehall who are not reconciled to Brexit, who are pushing hard for decisions to be taken in … areas of defence policy on an absurdly short timescale. Post Brexit defence policies will take time to evolve and a lot of consultation and the UK military voice needs to be heard loud and clear.”

Speech by The Rt Hon Lord Owen to the Henry Jackson Society’s British Foreign Policy After Brexit’ event, London 19 April 2018

Full text here: 19.4.18HenryJackson

“There will either be war in the Middle East over Syria and possible increased military activity in Ukraine, or there will be a meeting between President Trump and President Putin trying to resolve these two potential conflicts. …It is a simple fact that Russian influence is the vital ingredient for peace in Syria and the Middle East and American influence is essential in Ukraine and Eastern Europe.

“… For a post Brexit Britain the challenge is abundantly clear. It is to make an urgent decision to increase our defence spending from NATO’s target figure of 2% of GDP to 2.5%; to put the weight of our diplomatic and military effort into NATO and to show that the speech President Macron made to the European Parliament on 17 April is wrong and defeatist and that in opposing authoritarian powers Europe can rely on the United States.

“… on exiting the EU on 31 March 2019 … we should no longer be a member of the EU’s European External Action Service EEAS … We should retain, of course, at all times a deep-seated security relationship with the EU … But we are not – and should not be – institutionally part of EU defence.

“… There is a group in Whitehall who are not reconciled to Brexit, who are pushing hard for decisions to be taken in … areas of defence policy on an absurdly short timescale. Post Brexit defence policies will take time to evolve and a lot of consultation and the UK military voice needs to be heard loud and clear.”

Lord Owen argues for the very costly Health and Social Care Act 2012 to be urgently revoked and the vocational, ethical and moral foundations of the 1948 legislation restored.

Keynote speech to a conference on ‘Brexit and the NHS’ held by the UK in a Changing Europe initiative at the Wellcome Centre, 14 March 2018. Full text here: Brexit&NHSspeech

“I am genuinely puzzled why the main NHS charities that dominate discussion on the NHS – the King’s Fund and Nuffield Trust – continue to champion [the] external market? They have become not charities in the true sense of the term to serve those in need; but partisans fighting for a political view of the NHS held by a managerial class and MPs which poll after poll shows is not supported by public opinion.

“At last the Labour Party is changing its position and they know that reverting to the principles of the 1948 Act will be much easier outside the EU legislative framework than inside.”

Here’s how to stop the EU yelling ‘heel’ – and prosper after Brexit: Sunday Times article

“… I have no doubt whatever that a transition predominantly via the EEA would, quite manifestly, be better for all concerned.” Lord Owen writing in the Sunday Times, 28 January 2018.

Read the full article here: SundayTimes28.1.18base

“A vital Brexit issue will have to be resolved in the next six to eight weeks. Are we to be thrust into political limbo after leaving the European Union next year or will we assert democratic control through parliament, a core reason for many voting to leave the EU?

“…We could effectively avoid (the so-called ‘cliff edges’)— an agreement on leaving the EU and on free trade — if the European Council’s guidelines for the ‘political limbo’ (transition) period allowed for the UK to participate inside the single market as a non-EU member of the EEA.

“For the past 18 months, I have quietly tried to convince the prime minister that this is the best existing democratic framework for us to be within for the transition period. It does not mean exercising the same powers as are open to the other three members — Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein — and we would be accepting the European Council’s demand for an absolutist status quo standstill, but we would not be in limbo.

“We would have automatic EEA consultation rights on EU legislation and would not be under the ECJ, but the EEA-Efta (European Free Trade Association) court and the EEA governance pillar.

“I have no doubt whatever that a transition predominantly via the EEA would, quite manifestly, be better for all concerned.”

Read the full article here: SundayTimes28.1.18base

The EEA is a credible strategy for the transition period, argues Lord Owen.

Lord Owen speaking to the Institute of Policy Research, University of Bath, 18 January 2018.

Full text hereBath18.1.18


The EU-UK negotiations over a Withdrawal Agreement from the EU have gone far enough to show we can find a way for a smooth, not a hard, exit. That is an exit with a sufficient period to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement that does cover financial services, the largest part of the UK economy, and sets the parameters of an ambitious Free Trade Agreement, giving sufficient time during a transition to adapt to WTO trading.

It will need a greater sense of national unity to achieve; a greater readiness on this issue of overwhelming national importance to put to one side party politics or personal preferences. In addition, we need provision in case there is no agreement by October 2018 for a more limited, less ambitious default transition before embarking on WTO trading in 2021.

The EU-UK document ‘On Progress During Phase 1 of Negotiations Under Article 50 TEU on the United Kingdom’s Orderly Withdrawal from the European Union’ which was published on 8 December 2017 is a sensible document.

Drawing on my experience of the EU since 1976 I judge it will be impossible to get the European Council to change its position adapted on 15 December without the UK proposing a detailed ‘managed divergence’ approach to the Single Market in the transition.

In responding, therefore, to the EU wish for the Withdrawal Agreement to be “clearly defined and precisely limited in time” the UK Government would be wise to state now that they are ready to rely for legislative purposes during the transition chiefly upon the European Economic Area Agreement during the transition to which we are a contracting party. This does not resolve all issues – transitory status quo arrangements for agriculture and fisheries will still be required – also while the Customs Union is allowed under the EEA neither Norway, Sweden nor Liechtenstein thought it necessary to take it up. The Withdrawal Agreement it is clear from the outset is for the transition and no longer than the transition period which is currently planned to end no later than 30 December 2020. We can set aside legal arguments as to whether or not a contracting party to the EEA Agreement ceases to be one if they leave the EU by making provision for the small amendments that make it clear that the UK will continue to be a contracting party to the EEAA within the Withdrawal Agreement. As such an amended EEA Agreement will respect our sovereignty, as it does for Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.

On Tuesday 16 January Professor Baudenbacher, a judge of the EFTA Court and President until last year, in giving evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee indicated that the EEA-EFTA option for the UK’s transition period using its Protocol procedures for amendment is potentially feasible, even given the short timescale.

This EEA transition option plainly gives the UK more power and control over subsequent developments than would the European Council’s proposal of last December. But it would also be easier for EU members. It follows precedent and in some parts would be bespoke but it means much of the legal provision is contained in a well understood international treaty with its own legal framework. It ought to unite all shades of Leave opinion, and attract some Remainers who recognise the need in practical negotiations to start to respect the referendum decision.

Full text hereBath18.1.18

BBC HARDtalk interview: David Owen rebuffs Brexit scaremongering

BBC HARDtalk interview January 2017

Interview with Stephen Sackur. First shown: 2:30am 4 Jan 2018, available for 11 months. Duration 24 mins

(At approx. 14 minutes:) “Why do we spend our whole time doing ourselves down? Why do we have, day after day, newspaper stories aimed at demoralising and sharpening (opposition)? Who are these people who can’t take defeat in a referendum? Who spend their whole time on this issue?

“There is a positive story. We are a great country still, we have a great deal of courage, enterprise and energy in our young people… they are much more turning their hand to this challenge in front of us…

“I don’t understand why we should spend our whole time questioning the very judgement of the British people who decided they wanted to leave the EU. Is that the role of the elite? …of some MPs who weren’t able to win? Or are we prepared to live with the result and make a success of it?….

“(in the last election) Labour got many many votes in the North of England from people in who wanted to leave the EU… Labour should focus itself on getting a good result of leaving the EU – all of us should…”

Lord Owen argues the need for a Brexit Default Position.

Speaking at The Times Forum Meeting at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, Sunday 8 October 2017.


It is now clear that the German and French governments have vetoed moving into discussions on the Prime Minister’s speech in Florence. We will lose at least two months of negotiating time. We are witnessing the classic Brussels rolling out of delaying tactics compounded by the UK Government’s dithering. It is all creating political uncertainty.

If there is not greater clarity by the turn of the year, it will really start to hurt: investment projects can’t be held on hold indefinitely, and there will probably be the first material cancellations in the first quarter if this continues.

Since it looks as if the EU will keep stringing things out, my own strong preference now is for a UK unilateral declaration (as quickly as possible) of how the UK intends to operate in the absence of the EU being prepared to discuss the Prime Minister’s speech in Florence. This should be our Default Position for leaving the EU under Article 20 at the end of March 2019 involving a transition period of two years prior to operating under WTO in 2021.

Firstly, the UK should stay in the EEA for two years and seek to make arrangements with Norway and others under the Non-EU governance pillar arrangements to do that. We should operate that agreement ‘as is’. The UK would not give the one year’s notice of our intention to leave the EEA agreement in March 2018 (ie. in six months’ time.)

If the EU challenge our position as a Non-EU contracting party to the EEAA, we should go to international dispute resolution using the Vienna Convention. (If the EU wish to open themselves up to legal action by any business that is adversely affected by their lack of cooperation with an established procedure for international agreement that is an EU responsibility).

The UK should start as a Non-EU contracting party to introduce, after the fullest negotiations, our own UK management measures in our own UK fishing waters and our own agricultural policies again after fullest negotiation with all 31 other Contracting parties to the EEA Agreement. Consultations will start to introduce EEAA-compliant limitations on free movement of workers in 2019.

The UK should continue to operate the common external tariff for two years and run things exactly as now. Eg. French, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Bulgarian wine, etc. can come in tariff free and on the current arrangements provided only that they reciprocate. If they don’t, the UK should follow the time honoured practice of tit-for-tat, up to WTO levels.

Within the two year period, the UK should start to negotiate international FTAs while giving a priority to the EU. If there is no readiness on behalf of the EU to negotiate a FTA seriously, other FTAs might become operative before March 2021.

The UK can collect customs duties as now, but not (as now) pay the great bulk of that revenue to the EU. Rather we will take a slice from it to cover the Financial Mechanism payments entailed by the EEAA, which are paid by the UK direct to the beneficiaries (Poland, the Baltics, Romania, etc, etc.) The beneficiaries will appreciate that since they need it. We would pay the rest of the customs duties into the general budget for the two year period, provided other EEA states reciprocate on the other aspects. If they don’t, we should keep that revenue.

The UK should settle our pension obligations soon and separately. It shouldn’t be much when assets are netted off. This is what the EU have always said they wanted.

This Default Position which would not involve the ECJ but the EFTA Court is a reasonable and fair way to proceed. Is it too much to hope that the House of Commons on a cross party basis could come together on such a basis if the EU stand-off continues after October?




The Financial Mechanism section of the Agreement provides for the only mandatory payments of non-EU states. It is basically a compulsory regional policy. The EFTA website describes it as follows.

First, the EEA EFTA States contribute towards reducing economic and social disparities in the EEA through the EEA Grants. Currently the beneficiary states include Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. In addition to the EEA Grants, Norway has funded a parallel scheme since 2004 – the Norway Grants. The funding period covering 2014-2021 has a total financial envelope of approximately EUR 400 million per year. These contributions are not managed by the EU, but by the EFTA Financial Mechanism Office in collaboration with the beneficiary countries.

Over 40% of the Norwegian payment (the Norway Grants) is voluntary, instituted when oil prices were high, so we could avoid that. A better estimate of the mandatory amount for Norway is probably around EUR 225 million per annum. Since our GDP is a little over seven times higher, the implied figure for the UK might be around £1.6 billion per year.