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Edging away from Brexit

4 December 2012 By Hugo Dixon

Boris Johnson’s intervention in the European debate reduces the chance of a British exit from the European Union – or Brexit. The mayor of London, a popular Conservative politician, says he will campaign to keep Britain in the EU provided it can negotiate a pared-down relationship based on the single market.

Johnson, who is a darling of the UK’s largely eurosceptic Tory press, has not previously pinned his colours to the mast. Indeed, some thought he would be in favour of pulling Britain out of the EU. But he is concerned that London and the UK would lose out if Britain left the EU and, as such, had no say in setting the rules of the single market.

So the mayor wants to negotiate a new arrangement which would involve, among other things, scrapping social chapter provisions and the common fisheries policy. The result would then be put to a referendum, in which the question would be: “Do you want to stay in the EU single market: yes or no?” Johnson would advocate “yes”, he told a Thomson Reuters Newsmaker event on Dec. 4, which I moderated.

There are problems with the mayor’s stance. First, Britain’s European partners would at best agree to modify arrangements like the fisheries policy, not scrap them. In such a situation, would Johnson still campaign to stay in?

A second problem is that the 17 euro zone countries are moving towards closer fiscal and political union. Johnson argues that the UK government shouldn’t be encouraging this trend. He says the closer union moves are undemocratic. But, whatever Britain does, the trend is pretty entrenched. The risk is that the UK’s influence over the single market rules will then be reduced. Indeed, this is already a live issue in the discussion over creating a banking union.

Still, the specifics of Johnson’s position are perhaps less important at this stage than its general orientation. If he really campaigns to stay in the EU, he is one of the few people who could sell that to a sceptical British public.


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