British Prime Minister Theresa May has again rejected calls for the UK to remain in a customs union with the European Union after the country leaves the bloc — but said she remains open to further talks with the opposition Labour Party as the clock ticks toward a potential no-deal Brexit.
While May battles to salvage her withdrawal agreement from the EU, her government enjoyed a brief victory on Monday by announcing a trade agreement with Switzerland.
The prime minister wrote a letter to opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn Sunday, responding to Corbyn’s suggestion that Labour might support a Brexit deal if it ensured membership of a customs union — allowing tariff-free trade to continue with the EU after Brexit.
She appeared to rule out that possibility, arguing it would diminish the country’s ability to strike trade deals. “I am not clear why you believe it would be preferable to seek a say in future EU trade deals rather than the ability to strike our own deals?” she wrote.
But May said she would welcome further talks on what “alternative arrangements” should be sought to the backstop — an insurance policy designed to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — which has stalled parliamentary support for her proposals so far.
“One of the things I would like our teams to discuss is the exact nature of those alternative arrangements,” May wrote.
And she revealed Parliament will play a bigger role in directing negotiations with the EU, writing: “We intend to give Parliament a bigger say in the mandate for the next phase of the negotiations to address concerns that… MPs cannot be sure precisely what future relationship it would lead to.”
May’s original withdrawal agreement with the EU was defeated by 230 votes last month — a historically emphatic loss for a government in the House of Commons.
If no new deal has been reached with the EU by Wednesday, May will make a statement to Parliament that day and table a motion for debate Thursday.
Swiss-UK trade agreement
Meanwhile, the UK’s deal with Switzerland will ensure the current trading relationship between the two nations will continue after Brexit, the British government said.
The agreement, which will take effect when the UK leaves the EU, was first announced in December and was ratified in Bern, Switzerland, on Monday.
The deal replicates current trading arrangements “as far as possible,” the government said when it was first revealed. But ministers remain under pressure to strike further deals before Britain leaves the European Union on March 29.
“Switzerland is one of the most valuable trading partners that we are seeking continuity for, accounting for more than 32 billion pounds worth of trade a year,” Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox said in a statement.
“This is of huge economic importance to UK businesses, so I’m delighted to be here in Bern today, ensuring continuity for 15,000 British exporters,” he added.
As a member of the EU, the UK benefits from the EU’s trade deals with other nations, but it will lose those deals in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Switzerland is not a member of the EU but is part of its single market.
On Sunday, the director-general of the Confederation of British Industry said the government’s failure to secure other continuity of trade deals was an “emergency.”
“The prospect is the day after Brexit those deals will disappear,” Carolyn Fairbairn told Sky News.