Belfast Telegraph

UK can still attract top talent despite tighter border controls, insists Johnson

Britain can remain a "lodestar and magnet" for talented migrants from around the globe even after it introduces tougher immigration rules after quitting the EU, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has insisted.

Mr Johnson told a committee of MPs that Brexit would allow the UK to be a "soft power superpower", spreading its influence around the world to countries which felt they had been "forgotten" by Britain in recent decades - including the Gulf states.

He told the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee that the remaining 27 EU states have "a huge interest" in agreeing a deal which would allow Britain to continue to trade its goods and services, and said it was "complete nonsense" to suggest that trade links were dependent on allowing free movement of people.

"The idea that the Brownian movement of individuals, of citizens across the surface of Europe is somehow there on tablets of stone in Brussels is a complete nonsense," said Mr Johnson. "It's a fiction.

"We are taking back control of our borders as we said we would, and that's what we will do.

"It doesn't meant that we are going to be hostile to people of talent who want to live and work here. I think it is extremely important that we continue to send out a signal of openness and welcome to the many brilliant people who help to drive the London economy and the UK economy."

Mr Johnson insisted there was no contradiction between placing tighter controls on immigration and continuing to welcome the best and brightest from around the world to come to the UK.

Brexit means "restoring our democracy and control of our borders and our lives and a fair bit of cash", said the Foreign Secretary. "But Brexit is not any sort of mandate for this country to turn in on itself and haul up the drawbridge or to detach itself from the international community.

"I know as a former mayor of this city how vastly our capital and our whole economy has profited from London's role and the UK's role as a lodestar and a magnet for talent. I believe there is no inconsistency between the desire to take back control of our borders and the need to be open to skills from around the world."

Mr Johnson ducked the question of whether he wanted to keep membership of the European single market during withdrawal negotiations under Article 50 of the EU treaties.

Asked repeatedly by the Scottish National Party's Europe spokesman Stephen Gethins whether maintaining single market membership was an objective of the Government, Mr Johnson said: "I think the term 'single market' is increasingly useless.

"We are going to get a deal which is of huge value and possibly of greater value ... We are going to get the best possible deal for trade in goods and services."

He added: "There are many countries that sell very effectively into the single market and that's certainly what we will do."

Mr Gethins told the Foreign Secretary that his answers, and those of other ministers involved in the Brexit negotiations, demonstrated that: "You don't know. Ye dinnae ken. You don't have a Scooby."

Mr Johnson said he thought Britain had done "the right thing" in voting to leave the EU on June 23.

He told the committee: "I think those who prophesied doom before the referendum have been proved wrong and I think they will continue to be proved wrong.

"Obviously it will take time before the full benefits of Brexit appear."

Responding to the Foreign Secretary's comments, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said: "After his bungling performance today, it's clear the only thing which is becoming `increasingly useless' is Boris Johnson himself.

"His glib dismissal of the Single Market shows the Conservatives have given up any claim to be the party of business and are putting jobs, prosperity and lower prices at risk."

Mr Johnson revealed that Prime Minister Theresa May is later this year set to become the first female guest of honour at a summit of the Gulf Co-operation Council, as part of a drive to build Britain's post-Brexit links with the region.

He told the committee that before becoming Foreign Secretary he had spoken with "a sheikh" from a Gulf state who told him that Britain had "somehow become less present in that country politically, culturally, commercially" and other powers, including France, had moved in.

"I am here to tell you this morning in so far as that was ever true of the UK, that neglect is being reversed with astonishing speed," he said.

The Foreign Office was approaching Brexit with a spirit that was "more energetic, more outward looking and more engaged with the world than at any time in decades", he said.

"That outward-looking spirit is present not just in the Gulf but across the world and I think it is going to intensify as we extricate ourselves from the EU and forge a new identity as a global Britain."

Mr Johnson conceded that negotiating a new relationship with the EU could take longer than the two year timetable set out in Article 50, but insisted that he was "absolutely confident" that a good deal would be reached.

"I think there will be a deal, I think it will be a great deal," he said. "If it can't be done in two years then there are mechanisms for extending the period of discussion. I don't think that will be necessary, I think we can do it."

Committee chair Crispin Blunt cautioned that it may not be possible to secure a deal which is acceptable to all those in Europe who will need to give their approval.

"'No deal' is perfectly possible and we can't control the outcome of these negotiations," Mr Blunt told the Foreign Secretary. "We need to give some degree of certainty for industry and commerce for the investment decisions they have got to make over the next two-and-a-half years."

Mr Johnson said: "I think they can be absolutely certain that Britain will remain the number one place to invest in this region, because of the time zone, our language, our skills base...

"We are the place to come and that is going to be giant fact of life, even if we and our partners are so foolish as not to do a great deal on trade in goods and services. I am absolutely confident we will, because it is profoundly in the interest of elected politicians over the Channel to do it for the good of their citizens."

The "ideology" of the EU would prove to be "entirely secondary" to economic questions once negotiations got under way, he predicted.

Mr Johnson said: "It's so important to recast this whole conversation and to look at Brexit as an evolution of the development of the EU and as a solution of the British problem, and to stop thinking of it as this acrimonious divorce.

"It's not going to be like this. This is going to be the development of a new European partnership between Britain and the EU and it's going to be beneficial for both sides."

Labour MP Chuka Umunna, the chair of Vote Leave Watch, said: "Brexiteers will not trick the British people by pretending the single market somehow doesn't exist. It does, and it gives British businesses totally free access to the biggest market on Earth, supporting millions of jobs.

"When Leavers like Boris claim that Britain will get a trade deal of 'greater value' than the single market, they are unfortunately talking nonsense. The only way for them to minimise the economic damage to Britain they dismiss so blithely is to negotiate to keep Britain in the single market."

And Conservative MP Anna Soubry, of the Open Britain campaign, said: "The single market isn't a 'useless phrase'. It's the world's largest trading area, and our membership of it boosts Britain's economy.

"If there's a deal of 'greater value' out there than single market membership, then businesses and economists have not come across it.

"The Government needs to provide concrete evidence before it pulls us out of our home market of 500 million customers."