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EU endgame is political unity not free trade, argues Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson hopes speech will go some way to reconciling remainers and leavers.
Boris Johnson hopes speech will go some way to reconciling remainers and leavers. Photograph: Teri Pengilley for the Guardian

The founding fathers of the European Union did not create the common market to tear down barriers to trade but to pursue a political project, Boris Johnson will argue this week, in a speech setting out what he claims is a liberal vision for Brexit.

The foreign secretary will call on remain and leave voters to unite, insisting that Britain can take advantage of the referendum vote for economic gain but only if it is ready to diverge on regulations.

In the first of a series of speeches by senior cabinet ministers, Johnson wants to appeal to the instincts of those who voted remain, but his argument will be heavily criticised by those who see the EU as a major liberalising force.

Sources revealed that an early draft of the speech echoed arguments that the cabinet minister made in a recent interview with the Guardian. “What I would like to see is this country taking advantage of the people’s decision, to get the best economic result from that decision, and do the best we can do,” said Johnson.

“The great thing about EU regulation is that it is not primarily there for business convenience, it is not primarily there to create opportunities for companies to trade freely across frontiers, it is primarily there to create a united EU.”

The foreign secretary called it a “teleological construction” that was “ends driven”. He said the founding fathers of the common market decided to create a “new sense of political identity by legal means” – but claimed this went against liberal thinking. “[John Stuart] Mill would say that the national group, the group that most associate with each other, govern each other. But this was a new idea to try to transcend that.”

Johnson believes that any move to stay as close as a country such as Norway is to the EU would tie Britain’s hands because signing up to the same regulations would limit the ability to strike new trade deals elsewhere. But his argument – ahead of a raft of speeches by the trade secretary, Liam Fox, the Brexit secretary, David Davis, the Cabinet Office minister, David Lidington, and the prime minister, Theresa May – could raise fears about plans for deregulation after Brexit.

Although senior government figures, such as Davis, have argued that Britain will maintain the highest standards, some fear that senior pro-Brexit Conservatives want to see regulations swept away.

The Guardian understands that a secret civil service analysis of the possible economic impact of Brexit, which the government was forced to release to MPs recently, concludes: “Leaving the European Union could provide the UK with an opportunity to regulate differently across social, environment, energy, consumer and product standards.”

It said the estimated gains of such deregulations would be low overall, but highest in “areas of high sensitivity” – naming employment, consumer protections and the environment in particular.

One Labour MP, Stephen Doughty, said that the EU had been the source of hugely progressive legislation covering the environment, the rights of workers and equality. “There is no liberal case for Brexit,” he said.

Behind the scenes, Johnson will still face a battle with some cabinet colleagues at an away day in Chequers next week, such as the home secretary, Amber Rudd, and the chancellor, Philip Hammond, who want to retain close economic ties to the EU. Hammond is not delivering a speech but is travelling to a number of European cities this week – Oslo, Stockholm, The Hague, Madrid and Lisbon – to discuss the implications of Brexit for financial services.

Charles Grant, the director of the Centre for European Reform, said Johnson was right that the founding fathers of the EU wanted to create a united Europe through economic integration – but argued that the result was the world’s most open trading bloc. “That meant that the EU had to be a liberalising project, in the sense of removing barriers to the free flow of people, capital, goods and services,” he said, arguing that required mutual recognition of standards.

He argued that the EU single market was the only international trade agreement in history to significantly remove barriers to trade in services, allowing British firms to thrive in banking, consultancy, media, telecoms, energy and aviation.

“So the underlying purpose of the EU may be political, but it cannot thrive or integrate further without adopting extremely liberal policies, within and without,” added Grant – arguing that was why those on the far left and right tended to oppose the EU. They understand that the EU’s DNA is liberal.”

Meanwhile, Peter Holmes – an economics academic at Sussex University – also accepted that the founders believed market integration was a goal in its own right, but said Johnson was wrong on regulations.

“The member states made it clear in the early years that they did not want harmonisation of rules for the sake of it and the ECJ was led in the 1980s to embrace the idea of mutual recognition,” he said. “This principle allows firms to sell freely across borders.”

  • This article was amended on 13 February 2018 after it listed The Hague as a capital city. It is the seat of the Dutch parliament, but Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands.
This article titled "EU endgame is political unity not free trade, argues Boris Johnson" was written by Anushka Asthana Political editor, for The Guardian on Monday 12 February 2018 08.07pm


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