A key mantra from Brexiteers is that we must leave the EU in order to take back control of our money, our laws, and our borders. But is this actually true?
Probably the part of this mantra that resonates most with the public is taking back control of our borders and therefore controlling immigration so let’s examine this first.
Taking back control of our borders?
There are two assumptions implicit in this mantra:
- we do not currently have control of our borders, and
- the EU prevents us from having full control of our borders.
The first of these is partly true, the second is not, and here’s why.
The UK has no idea who is in the country, legally or otherwise because while we check passports for people entering the UK, we do not check people leaving. In 1994 the Conservative government abolished embarkation controls (otherwise known as exit checks) for all passengers departing for EU destinations. In 1998 the Labour government abolished exit checks for all destinations which meant that, from 1998 to the present day, the government has had no idea who is still in this country. Nobody checks your passport once you have gone through security at an airport, as they do in virtually every other country in the world1.
As a result, we have no robust way of knowing exactly who has left this country. The government cannot even provide figures for illegal immigrants in the UK who are not detained to the nearest quarter of a million.
Also, the UK does not have identity cards, unlike every other member state in the EU except for Denmark and Ireland. Identity cards are an easy way of keeping track of who is in the country illegally and who is entitled to access government and social services2.
Implicit in the taking back control mantra is also the assumption that we cannot control immigration unless we ‘take back control of our borders’.
Net migration to the UK (year ending March 2018) was 235,000 for non-EU citizens and 87,000 for EU citizens, so by far the largest number of immigrants come to the UK from outside of the EU. We have, and always have had, complete control over such immigration, and clearly it has nothing to do with the EU.
For EU immigration, successive UK governments have failed to implement the controls permitted by the EU. Freedom of movement is actually free movement of workers under UK law and specifically3:
allows EU citizens to visit the UK to seek employment for a period of 3 months, during which time they cannot access public funds (such as jobseeker’s allowance) and could be registered so we know who’s here;
for stays over 3 months immigrants must either be working or have sufficient resources and sickness insurance to ensure they do not become a burden on the state or social services. If they don’t meet these criteria they can be deported.
The UK has chosen not to implement these restrictions under Theresa May both when she was Home Secretary, and subsequently while she is Prime Minister. Germany, on the other hand, requires all EU migrants to register if they are staying for more than 3 months4.
The real reason we don’t have more control over immigration to the UK is due to the policy of successive UK governments, not because of our membership of the EU. Politicians have, for decades, chosen to blame the EU for immigration problems, rather than doing their jobs and developing policy to address public concerns. We do not need to leave the EU to address this, we just need better politicians and governments.
There is a more details examination of UK immigration issues here.
Taking back control of our money?5
This part of the ‘taking back control’ mantra implies that the UK currently has little control over government spending, while the EU controls how we spend taxpayer’s money.
Firstly, the net amount the UK pays to the EU (£8.1 billion annual net contribution) is around 1% of total UK government spending (or just 0.33% of GDP6) – about 34p per person per day. 99% of UK government spending is directly controlled by the UK government and has nothing to do with the EU. The 1% of government spending we send to the EU is effectively our membership fee for being part of the EU ‘club’. In return, we get enormous benefit – our economy has gone from being a basket case when we joined to being the fifth largest economy in the world7.
We even have a degree of control over how the EU spends our 1% - EU spending plans have to be approved by the EU Parliament and Council of Ministers, both of which are democratic bodies on which we are well represented (except by UKIP MEPs who’s sole purpose is to destroy the EU). For all major decisions the UK has an effective veto.
To put our £8.1 billion net annual contribution in context, the UK government has already allocated £4.2 billion8 just for Brexit planning, and the negative economic effects of the Brexit referendum vote are costing our economy at least £26 billion per annum9!
Taking back control of our laws?
You may hear figures ranging from 13% to 62% of UK law that comes from the EU but these figures are largely meaningless10.
"It is only possible to reach a figure anywhere approaching 60% by entirely ignoring the fundamental distinction between EU legislation and EU administration, thereby massively exaggerating the statistics for the amount of EU law, by including vast numbers of detailed, technical measures that would never be counted as law if they were adopted within the UK legal system,"
Professor Michael Dougan, Professor of EU Law at Liverpool University.
There are also two main types of EU law. There are EU regulations, most of which apply automatically in all 28 EU member states - so most EU regulations are part of UK law.
Then there are EU directives, which set out an aim for member states to achieve. They don't specify how to achieve it, but directives have to be implemented by a national law. The UK normally does this through a statutory instrument10.
But it is doubtful whether such a debate has any point. The impact of EU law varies enormously across sectors.
"The impact of EU law varies from sector to sector. In many areas - public order, crime, defence, health - EU laws have minimal impact. But in others - workers' rights, trade - the impact is much greater because the single market and the free movement of workers are at the heart of what the EU is about. The way we organise our NHS is not."
Sir Paul Jenkins, a former Treasury solicitor who headed up the Government Legal Department.
In agriculture, fisheries, external trade, and the environment, EU legislation and policy is indeed the main driver of UK law and policy, although the UK retains some freedom of action in these areas. In other important areas—for example, welfare and social security, education, criminal law, family law and the NHS—the direct influence of the EU is far more limited11.
Much EU law is about enabling trade or protecting EU citizens. If we are to continue trading with the EU in any form, then we will have to align to some extents with EU trade-related regulations, even after we leave the EU. Instead of just incorporating such regulations into UK law, we would then have to create UK equivalents and we have little or no influence in the creation of the EU regulations in the first place.
A more meaningful discussion might be around what are we, as UK citizens, not able to do because of EU law/regulation? Assuming we are all law-abiding citizens then it is difficult to think of a single example of something we are prevented from doing because of EU law. The concept then, of taking back control of our laws, becomes meaningless.
The whole Brexit process from the referendum campaign up to today has been littered with irritating, and largely meaningless slogans: Brexit means Brexit, deep and special partnership, strong and stable, the will of the people, we want our country back, and perhaps the most effective of them all, take back control. But when examined in detail, this is seen for what it is, deliberately misleading political dogma based only loosely on fact, used for political gain and not for the good of the country.
Cliff Mitchell, OurEU.UK, Staffs4Europe.EU