Taking control: Britain’s battle over borders

Wonderland: The Times‘s Peter Brookes on the Cameron-Johnson rivalry. Reprinted by permission.

Immigration is one of the key issues for voters in the EU referendum. With less than a week to go, much of the debate comes down to one simple question: who should make the decisions?

On any given day during the last few months of EU referendum campaigning, you can guarantee that someone from the Leave camp would at some point utter the same two little words: ‘take control’. Whether discussing borders, ‘red tape’ or free trade, Brexit fans are clear about one thing: they want Britain, and Britain alone, to call the shots.

Currently, EU laws are made through a complex process involving four institutions. First, the 28 members of the European Commission — one from each EU country — propose a law. It must be voted for by the 751 elected MEPs of the European Parliament (just under 10% are British) and agreed by the 28 government ministers or leaders in the European Council. Then, 28 judges in the European Court of Justice have authority to ensure that the law is followed properly.

It is tricky to say exactly how many of the UK’s laws actually come from the EU, but it could be anywhere between 15-55%. They cover everything from how many hours people are allowed to work each week, to how many fish can be caught from the sea. Leaving the EU would let the British government make these decisions for itself.

Polls have shown that one of the policy areas which voters care about most is immigration. This is not a small part of the EU — the ‘free movement of people’ is baked into the very core of its being, as one of the main principles of the EU treaty. Any EU citizen can live and work in any other EU country they like.

That is why many of the Britons who want less immigration also want to leave. They see it as the only way to ‘take control’ of the number of people moving to Britain from the EU (in 2015, this was around 270,000).

But would it work? If Britain votes to leave, it may decide that it wants a trade deal with Europe. That would mean accepting many of the EU’s trade laws — and the free movement of people. If Britain does not do a trade deal, Leave campaigners have suggested a points-based immigration system instead.

Decisions, decisions

Whatever it chooses to do about immigration, the important thing is that Britain gets to choose, say Leave voters. It has a centuries-old democracy which has successfully steered it through all manner of national crises and global changes. That cannot be abandoned to the ‘creeping power grab’ of unelected officials in Brussels.

Nonsense, say Remain voters. For one thing, Britain already has control over most important issues, like most taxes and the NHS. For another, companies that want to trade with Europe will still have to follow its rules. At least when Britain is in the EU, it can influence what those rules are. It would be foolish to abandon that power for a dream which cannot be fulfilled.

You Decide

  1. Is immigration the most important issue of the EU referendum?
  2. Should Britain ‘take control’ of its laws by leaving the EU?


  1. Remain voters say they want to reform EU democracy from the inside. With a partner, discuss how you might change the EU’s decision-making process.
  2. Choose one area of life that you are interested in — such as technology, the environment, or travel — and research how EU laws affect it. Produce a report and conclude by weighing up whether the EU has been a good or a bad influence in that area.

Some People Say...

“Choice is an illusion.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Who cares which politicians make the laws? I don’t trust any of them.
UK laws will affect your life, from the benefits you might receive one day, to how clean the air is around you. If you disagree with those laws, a Leave vote might make it more effective to protest against them by appealing directly to your MP. At the same time, Remainers say that the EU acts as a stabilising influence on national governments, and protects many of your rights.
Will anything really change if we vote to leave?
Yes. The UK’s relationship with its neighbours will be changed for good, and Europe probably won’t be too happy about seeing us go. But how much will change remains to be seen — it all depends on what British politicians negotiate with Brussels in the years that follow. As yet, the plans are unclear.

Word Watch

Red tape
Political and EU referendum speak for the regulations that businesses must follow. Including popular requirements like maternity leave and toy safety standards, as well as more unpopular measures which some say cost businesses money.
It all depends on which laws you include in your count: EU regulations, which apply in all countries, would bring the percentage from the mid-teens into the 50s. But not all of them are relevant to the UK, or they are so technical that they barely have an impact.
Only yesterday, data from Google suggested that voters were most often searching for immigration-related issues. Earlier this week, an Independent poll found that one in three people thought is was the most important issue.
From official figures by the ONS. It is important to note that around 85,000 people left Britain to live in the EU. Net immigration for non-EU countries was 188,000.
This would give priority to workers with the skills that Britain needs at the time.
Home of the European Court, Council, Commission and Parliament.

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