Boris idea of taking control is Project Fantasy

by Hugo Dixon | 05.03.2016

Those who want us to pull out of the EU, such as Boris Johnson, say is it time to break free – as only then could we control our destiny. This is Project Fantasy. In the modern world, no individual and no country has absolute control. As ex-Conservative minister and European commissioner Chris Patten put it, a man, naked, hungry and alone in the Sahara desert would be free and sovereign – but also doomed.

We can only advance our economic and political interests by engaging with other nations. By being part of a larger group, we lose some freedom of action, but gain influence.

Other international bodies involve trade-offs, too

Having to make trade-offs is not unique to our EU membership. Membership of the NATO military alliance gives us the restrictions and obligations inherent in collective defence – should countries such as Turkey, Portugal and Estonia be attacked, we would have to help them. But that loss of freedom is not an argument for leaving NATO.

Nor do eurosceptics say we should quit the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Quite the opposite. Many, such as Nigel Lawson, chair of the Vote Leave campaign, think WTO membership could give us nearly as good access to global markets as EU membership. He is mistaken. But in any case, the WTO impinges on our sovereignty, restricting the tariffs we can put on others’ goods, the subsidies we can give to industry, and so on.

The 13,200 international agreements Britain has signed since 1834 constrain our action in areas from climate change, chemical weapons, war crimes and torture to the rules we apply to banking and air traffic. Over 700 “contain references to the possibility of binding dispute settlement in the event of disagreements”, according to Dominic Grieve, the former Attorney General. What’s more, this treaty-making is not a new phenomenon. Even at the height of the British Empire, when some romanticist might imagine we had absolute control, we were at it.

EU benefits outweigh costs

When it comes to the EU, the economic trade-off is as follows. We gain access to the largest single market in the world. In return, we have to pay a membership fee, play by the rules – including free movement – and put up with some irritating red tape. The net budget cost is around £100 per person per year. The economic benefits are many times that size, even if it is impossible to come up with an exact figure.

Want more InFacts?

Click here to get the newsletter

    Your first name (required)

    Your last name (required)

    Your email (required)

    Choose which newsletters you want to subscribe to (required)
    Daily InFacts NewsletterWeekly InFacts NewsletterBoth the daily and the weekly Newsletter

    By clicking 'Sign up to InFacts' I consent to InFacts's privacy policy and being contacted by InFacts. You can unsubscribe at any time by emailing [email protected]

    Despite eurosceptic claims to the contrary, Britain normally gets its way in the EU; it has been on the winning side of votes in the Council 87% of the time in the past six years. It was also the prime mover behind the EU’s single market, competition policy and eastwards expansion to former Soviet states.

    If we quit the EU and still want access to its market, we’d still have to follow most of the rules without having a vote on them. That would involve less control, not more.

    Edited by Jack Schickler

    Correction: this article was amended on 5 March concerning the number of international agreements Britain has entered into since 1834. The correct figure is 13,200, not 13,2000.

    Correction: this article was amended on 9 March to make clear that Nato membership doesn’t require Britain to go to war if another member is attacked.

    The order of some paragraphs was reshuffled on 25 March.


    Hugo Dixon is the author of The In/Out Question: Why Britain should stay in the EU and fight to make it better. Available here for £5 (paperback), £2.50 (e-book)

    3 Responses to “Boris idea of taking control is Project Fantasy”

    • I thought I read something by Pritti Patel talking about an existing free trade area from Iceland to Russia,
      . Have I missed something, and what about the sin bin?
      Please carry on your good work.
      Brian Fall

      The Leave campaign is a collection of so many uninformed ‘ yesterday’s men’ who are choking on the bile of their own xenophobia and falls from grace. You have to be astounded at how they ever got to positions of power and their damn cheek and total lack of respect for the people of the UK in trying to sway us with their loose assumptions that we can make our way in the world in the event that we are forced to leave by their ignorant incantations. Furthermore you have to suspect that they see a way to ‘ feather their nests’ at the expense of the rest of us and even see a way to bring back all the restrictive practices and preference that used to exist and was outed by Maggie Thatcher helped by the EU and forebears. People of the UK reject the misinformation and poison of the Leave campaign.

    • The Out campaign is a fascinating thing, rather like a major car crash – you know you should not slow down and gawk at the carnage, but nearly everyone does.

      The main players are an eclectic mix of wierdos, has-beens, and never-weres. Their incoherent campaign is a mix of toxic nostalgia, isolationism, neo-imperialism, and a sort of cultic certainty that once the UK leaves life will magically be better. And we will fill in the details as we go along because the world is just panting to buy British…….

      In reality, they cannot agree, even among themselves,as to what the UK’s future should like.

      It is also slightly strange that as the rest of the world is forming trade blocs, the UK should exit the largest, oldest and most successful one on the planet……