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Boris’s Five Questions

by Sebastian Mallaby | 10.05.2016

Boris Johnson has set out a challenge to the Remain camp: five questions that he says it cannot answer. Johnson’s speech on Monday contained so many tendentious claims that InFacts has addressed them in a separate piece; we also have six questions he should answer. But here we respond to Johnson’s challenge, although the task is complicated by the fact that some of his questions are vague.

Question 1: How can you possibly control EU immigration into this country?

Answer: You can’t. But you shouldn’t want to. EU migration to Britain is a good thing, both on its own terms and because it is part of a larger deal that gives Britain access to the EU Single Market. Contrary to myth, EU migration is not burdening the NHS, increasing crime or hurting wages. Rather, it enriches the UK labour force and economy. Fully 85% of EU nationals in the UK are economically active, compared to 80% of UK citizens and 73% of non-EU foreigners. Between 2001 and and 2011, European migrants made a net contribution of £22 billion to the UK budget; native Britons were net recipients of £624 billion. Meanwhile, 1.2 million Brits enjoy the reciprocal right to live and work in other EU countries. The UK government should certainly do more to get houses built, help migrants learn English, and ensure that there’s enough money for social services in areas where there are concentrations of migrants. But nothing about EU membership prevents it from doing that.

Question 2: How will you stop the UK living wage from pulling in more EU migrants?

Answer: The truth here is subtler than Johnson appears to imagine. Yes,  the higher the minimum wage, the more attractive low-skilled jobs will be to potential migrants. On the other hand, a higher minimum wage may also lead to fewer jobs, as some employers substitute machines for low-paid workers. Putting these two effects together, there might be more potential migrants who want UK jobs but fewer who actually get them–those who lost out would probably go home again. The net effect on EU migration is unclear.

Question 3: How will you prevent the European Court from interfering further in immigration, asylum and human rights?

Answer: When it comes to immigration and asylum, the UK can limit the European Court’s power by not opting into the EU rules that the Court interprets. The UK has exercised its right to stay out of some, though not all, EU asylum legislation; to the extent that it has opted in, this is because past UK governments have decided that this was in the national interest. Leaving the EU would have a limited effect  on sovereignty because Britain would continue to be bound by the United Nations convention on asylum. Contrary to Johnson’s implication, the European Court has sometimes blessed national efforts to exert control over migration, for instance in the area of welfare tourism: in 2014 it decided a case called Dano that recognised national discretion to deny benefits to migrants who are not economically active. Meanwhile, when it comes to human rights, the European Court’s jurisdiction applies only when a member state is applying an EU law; if the Court over-interprets its mandate, it is up to British courts to push back, as Germany’s constitutional court has done. Life without the European Court would not be better. The UK, like other member states, needs the Court to come to its defence, as when France illegally excludes farm products, or when the European Central Bank tries to limit euro trading in London. 

Question 4: Why did you give up the UK veto on further moves toward a fiscal and political union?

Answer: The UK does not plan to veto integration by others because that would not be in its interest, although technically it has not abandoned its right to do this. Members of the euro zone may need to integrate further to make the single currency work. A more stable euro area would be good for Britain.

Question 5: How can you stop us from being dragged in, and from being made to pay?

Answer: The UK has already demonstrated that it can stay out of aspects of the EU it dislikes. It is not party to the euro and has made clear that it expects never to be. It is not a member of the Schengen passport-free travel area. It has opted out of parts of the EU’s Working Time Directive. As to the danger that we will be “made to pay”, Johnson exaggerates how much we pay. Britain’s real net budget cost of £6.3 billion per year is justified by the benefits of membership–Britain needs to coordinate its response on some big issues with its neighbours, and the EU provides that service. Nor is it obvious that our contributions will be forced up in the future. Last time the European Commission reviewed its seven-year budget framework, the result was a decrease.  Johnson may have in mind the danger that the UK will be dragged into some future superstate. If so, he is too fearful. He may think we will have to pay for euro crises. Again, this is a phantom.

Edited by Alan Wheatley