Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Michael Gove and Boris Johnson: dumb and dumber

The legacy media have been so distracted today by pictures of Boris Johnson waving a Cornish pasty from his Leave campaign bus that they have overlooked the level of ignorance the former London mayor displayed this morning on Radio 4’s Today Show.

John Humphrys started an interview with Johnson by raising this question -- and well done, Humphrys, for doing so -- ‘If Britain votes to leave the European Union next month, would it follow that we would also leave the Single Market?’

Here is Johnson’s response. Remember, when listening to Johnson, as when listening to Michael Gove, best to assume the brace position: ‘The Single Market is a term of art [sic] for the vast empire of EU legislation and regulation, most of which is passed by qualified majority vote and now reaches into areas such as human rights, deportation, asylum, the rights of the child, all these are now adjudicated by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.’

‘So the answer is Yes, we should get out of the empire of EU law-making and what we should have instead is access to the Single Market….’

‘…What we want is to make sure we have access to the Single Market…’

[Humphrys interjects: In which case we’d have to have an agreement]

Johnson: ‘Exactly, in the way many other countries have access.’

[Humphrys: And they then have to accept the free movement of people as well]

Johnson: ‘No, they don’t.’

[Humphrys: Yes, they do.]

Johnson: ‘The United States of America, for instance, have access to the Single Market.'

[Humphrys: The United States of America does not have access to the European Single Market. It is not a member of the EEA]

Johsnon: ‘Of course it does, of course it has access…’

And on the muddle went.

Then Johnson started insisting -- pure fantasy -- that membership of the Single Market will ‘embroil’ us in ‘the creation of a fiscal structure to support the euro,’ and so on.

As exhausting as it is to those of us who actually know what the European Economic Area is – the 31-member state area that forms the Single Market, made up of the EU 28 plus three of the European Free Trade Area members Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein – and what it does, the level of Johnson’s ignorance cannot be allowed to pass.

Start with Johnson’s assertion that the Single Market ‘is the vast empire of EU legislation and regulation.’

No, it is not.

If the UK were to leave the EU and join the EEA-EFTA countries, it could immediately drop all EU legislation and regulation that was not ‘EEA relevant,’ in the Brussels jargon. That would mean Britain would bin about 17,000 items in the acquis communautaire (the complete body of EU law, regulations, directives and the rest) and be left needed to comply with only about 5,000.

As it happens, yesterday City A.M. ran a piece by Hjörtur J Guðmundsson, an Icelandic historian and expert on international relations. He covered this point.

Unlike Johnson, Gudmundsson actually knows what being in the EEA and not the EU means for a country:

‘First, the EFTA/EEA countries have not adopted every EU law through the EEA Agreement. No study supports that claim. In fact, research by Iceland’s foreign ministry and the EFTA Secretariat in Brussels found the percentage to be more like 10 per cent. Moreover, EU laws don’t become active in the EFTA/EEA countries unless they’re first implemented by their domestic institutions.’

‘Second, unlike EU members such as Britain, the EFTA/EEA countries sit in their own right at global tables where international rules are set. These rules, made by bodies like the World Trade Organisation (WTO), form a large part of the EU’s legislation and often require unanimity when first agreed (giving the likes of Norway an opportunity to influence them at source). EFTA/EEA countries have the chance to give their input at EU level too and they sit in the EEA Joint Committee, which decides which EU laws are incorporated into the EEA Agreement, meaning each EFTA/EEA country can veto the adoption of individual EU laws.’

Note that point: countries in the Single Market but not in the EU have the power to veto the adoption of individual EU laws.

Gudmundsson continues: ‘It’s also important that the EEA Agreement's scope is limited to the Single Market. Many very significant sectors are excluded, like foreign affairs, judicial and home affairs, economic and monetary issues, trade agreements, taxation, customs, borders (Schengen is not part of the EEA), fisheries and agriculture. For Britain, most of these sectors are subject to EU supranational authority.’

To enlarge Gudmansson's point: despite Johnson’s assertions, EU law on human rights, deportation, asylum, the rights of the child, and the adjudication of the European Court of Justice, does not reach into EEA-EFTA countries.

And not just into these areas. The EEA-EFTA countries are not bound by the ECJ in any way at all.

As for countries outside the Single Market (that is, outside membership of the EEA) ‘having access’ to the Single Market, Johnson is wrong again. As Richard North pointed out on the EU referendum blog following Michael Gove’s equally ignorant comments about the Single Market on the Andrew Marr programme last weekend:

‘Fundamentally we are dealing with a man who doesn't even begin to know what he is talking about. The Single Market is a common regulatory area (CRA), defined by its acquis, which you must adopt in order to be part of it. If you don't adopt the rules, you cannot be part of it. This, actually, is a binary choice. You're in it, or you're not in it. Simples.’

‘The point then is that, if a nation is not inside the Single Market and wants to trade with the EU, it must negotiate a separate agreement. This will give it access to the EU Member States' markets as a single bloc. But no-one outside the Single Market gains "access" to it. It is not a geographical entity, but a legal construct.’

The last of the assertions Johnson made that was so spectacularly wrong was his assertion that the United States ‘has access’ to the Single Market.

No, it doesn’t. The USA trades with individual members of the EU in compliance with EU regulations and under 134 international agreements concluded between the US and the EU.

What this means is that trade of course takes place between the US and Germany, France, Norway and the rest, but under conditions which are far removed from those enjoyed by the UK when trading with these same states inside the Single Market.

The thousands of regulations which make up the Single Market become, for a country outside the EEA, a wall of non-tariff trade barriers.

In a recent joint study published by the Bertelsmann Foundation, the Atlantic Council and the British Embassy in Washington, an example was given of the effect of present tariff and non-tariff trade barriers on motor car exports from the US to the EU:

‘US motor vehicle exporters face EU tariffs averaging 8.0 percent, including tariffs of 10.0 percent on finished vehicles and 3.0 percent to 4.5 percent on most parts, in addition to a variety of non-tariff measures (NTMs) that further restrict access to the EU market. The estimated cost of the NTMs is the equivalent of a 25.5 percent tariff on US motor vehicle exports.’

In other words, despite Boris Johnson’s blustering that the USA ‘has access’ to the Single Market, what Johnson doesn’t say – because he clearly doesn’t know – is that for American car manufacturers to export to any EU member state they face the equivalent to a 25.5 percent tariff barrier. Members of the Single Market face no such barrier.

Were the UK to leave the EU, and also leave the Single Market, its motor car exporters would be in exactly the same position as the American exporters.

If you wonder how long it would take for this 25.5 percent hit to be negotiated away, think years. Then more years. If such a deal could be quick and easy, the American trade negotiators would have cracked it a long time ago. And they haven’t.


  1. Interesting comment about the Single Market acquis. Maybe there is no universally accepted definition, but the term acquis communautaire is taken to mean the entire body of EU law, including European Court (ECJ) judgments. Therefore it could be argued that EFTA-EEA states are bound to obey these judgments. Whereas they are not policed directly by the ECJ, the EFTA Court is bound by the EEA Agreement to rule in line with the ECJ. Now some argue that the UK can treat the former's rulings as advisory, without having to obey them. However this raises the question as to how long participation in the EEA could be maintained before one of the other parties suggests suspending it for non-performance, or whether any party losing out could take the UK to another international court for damages. Your thoughts would certainly be appreciated.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. The previous comment on the Single Market acquis has a rider. The acquis applies at the point of accession to the EEA Agreement. Norway is only bound to accept the acquis rules it inherited on joining in 1994, plus those it chose to since. As the UK is already a member of the EU, there would be full continuity at the point of switching to EEA-EFTA?