The recent shift from the Trump administration towards trade protectionism illustrates well the benefit to the UK of being a member of the EU customs union. While the Secretary of State for International Trade and arch-Atlanticist Dr Liam Fox unsuccessfully lobbied Washington last March for an exemption of UK steel from the proposed punitive tariffs, it was due to the collective effort of the EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström representing all 28 EU members that such an exemption was secured for our steel and aluminium industries.
On the eve of its expiration, the exemption was prolonged earlier this week for another month. As a result the EU has joined an extremely select group of powerful trade partners who are strong enough to resist US economic bullying. Beyond the EU, this group only includes NAFTA partners Canada and Mexico – who are currently renegotiating their deep trade relationship. Smaller players, such as South Korea, Brazil or even Japan with its close relationship with the US, have been forced to accept tariffs or are in the process of agreeing painful bilateral concessions to the US in terms of reduced steel and aluminium exports. Despite the rhetoric about Global Britain, had we been facing this crisis alone outside the customs union we would likely have been treated more like Japan (3rd global economy compared to the UK's position as 6th), rather than as an integral part of the world's largest trading bloc.
With the future of our strategic steel industry and the thousands of jobs that depend on it in the country at stake, we are convinced that the EU customs union, and the strength in numbers it provides, is the only effective protection against US bullying today. As a country, we would do well to remember this while deliberating the merits of maintaining a customs union post-Brexit.