Even as the European Commission insisted that it would keep out of Britain’s referendum campaign, Brussels officials were privately scathing about some of Boris Johnson’s claims as he set out his reasons for supporting Britain’s departure from the EU.
Mr Johnson suggested British sovereignty was at risk from plans being hatched to bolster the single currency through closer integration, including budgetary union; but officials dismissed this as one of the very issues addressed in David Cameron’s weekend agreement. “The deal confirms the rights of all non-euro members, and also says that Britain need not be part of ‘ever-closer union’,” said one. “On that score, Boris has clearly ignored the results of Cameron’s renegotiation.”
Mr Johnson also complained that just 4 per cent of commission officials were British. However, the commission is seen as the one EU institution where officials are supposed to consider only the wider European good, rather than their own countries’ narrower interests. Far more important for Britain, say officials, is its greater voting weight in the Council of Ministers (29 out of 352, or 8.4 per cent) and the proportion of its members of the European Parliament (73 out of 751, or 9.7 per cent).
The London mayor admitted that Britain would need to replace each of the EU’s 50-plus trade deals with its own bilateral deals, but said this could be done within two years. That timetable was rejected as fanciful: UK civil servants would have to relearn the art of trade negotiations almost from scratch, officials said, and would negotiate from a distinct disadvantage.
Labour MEP Richard Corbett rejected Mr Johnson’s claim that EU lawmaking was undemocratic. “EU legislation is approved by two bodies: the Council of Ministers, drawn from democratically elected governments; and the directly elected European Parliament. The European Commission only proposes legislation,” he said.
Mr Johnson cited several examples of interfering EU rules: bans on using old tea bags in compost, on children inflating balloons and on powerful vacuum cleaners. Officials said each was a distortion or an outright lie. “Most of these are Euromyths,” one said. “Composting tea bags is not banned at all. The only rule on balloons is that latex ones need to carry warnings to parents. And vacuum cleaners only need labels to help energy efficiency.”
Mr Johnson followed the EU as Brussels correspondent for The Daily Telegraph in the early 1990s. Among his claims was that the commission’s headquarters would be blown up to make way for a mile-high tower. It is still in place today.