Theresa May listens to a question from the audience after giving a speech on Brexit LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

A Brexit Gentlemen’s Agreement

The main barrier to keeping the UK in the EU's customs union is political: a country with the heft and influence of the UK cannot be viewed as merely following EU decisions, over which it has no influence. Yet this problem can be solved – or, rather, finessed – with an informal agreement by the EU to take UK interests into account.

BRUSSELS – In her latest speech on Brexit, British Prime Minister Theresa May rejected the prospect of the United Kingdom remaining in the European Union’s customs union, on the grounds that the UK wants its own trade policy. This is not in the best interest of either the UK or the EU.

It is true that Norway and Switzerland, both of which are highly integrated into the EU market, have customs borders with the bloc. These countries need an independent commercial policy to provide greater protection than the EU offers to their domestic agricultural sectors, which in both cases can never be efficient, owing to mountainous terrain.

Yet the UK has traditionally been much less protective of its agriculture, and is thus likely after Brexit to pursue a commercial policy that is very similar to that of the EU, anyway. It is therefore difficult to see what the UK would gain from pursuing a national trade policy – especially at a time when the United States, under President Donald Trump, is pursuing policies (such as imposing tariffs on imported steel and aluminum) that show little regard for its smaller trade partners.

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