A classic example of the advantages of being in a customs union (as opposed to a free trade area) comes in The Times today.
It concerns the importation of electric, power driven wheelchairs which, hitherto, have been brought into the country duty-free. In 2001, however, the EU made a ruling - based on an opinion offered by the World Customs Organisation (WCO) – that these disability aids should be classed as "leisure vehicles", alongside snowmobiles, jet skis and racing cars.
Up to press, the UK had not been implementing the ruling but, after Belgium complained to the commission that our disabled were getting away Scot-free, Revenue & Customs are now slapping on the 10 percent duty, adding as much as £300 to the cost of a vehicle.
The United States, on the other hand, has dismissed the opinion of the WCO and imports vehicles without imposing duty but, as the EU had decided to accept the opinion, the UK has no option but to levy the duty. The difference is, of course, that the US is a sovereign state.
Had we been in a free trade agreement with the EU, we could have ignored that ruling but, being in a customs union, the supreme authority - in this case the EU commission – sets the duty rates for trading with third countries.
Still, this is a minor inconvenience compared with the up-side. Our legions of disabled, forced to pay this tax, will be pleased to know that their contributions go straight into the EU coffers less, of course, a percentage to pay the administration costs of Revenue & Customs. It is so nice to know that even after a personal disaster like losing your legs, you still have the opportunity to support the great EU "project".