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A Welcome Step From Boris Johnson, But the Mayor Fell Down on the Details

07/08/2014 15:57 BST | Updated 07/10/2014 10:59 BST

Detail in policy formation is important. It gives clarity, certainty and reassurance to those actors likely to be most affected. On matters European, particularly on that niggling and subjective issue of EU reform, debate is often prone to operating in a detail-free vacuum. So Boris Johnson today setting out some of the changes he and his economic adviser Gerard Lyons think would be necessary to see Britain benefit from continued EU membership is a welcome step in the right direction. But for all his robustness and rabble-rousing rhetoric, there were more than a few moments where the Mayor fell down on detail, and in doing so belied a weak spot that appears to plague Eurosceptics time and again.

These are not just mistakes on the small print stuff which mean little in the grander scheme of things. In Gerard Lyons' report, reforms to drive the EU into "A Brave New World" looked at halting the drive towards ever closer union, further liberalisation of services across the Single Market and addressing the relationship between the Eurozone and non-Euro area. These were some of the more concrete proposals. Boris however seemed to expand the radical scope of these ideas on the spot this morning.

There were calls to replicate the 'Dutch model' whereby 54 policy areas were "repealed", suggestions that that UK should retroactively exercise its opt out from the Social Chapter, and repeated demands for the introduction of a 'yellow card system' to boost the role of national parliaments.

But the Dutch subsidiarity review only outlined areas -not competences- they wanted to see the EU exercise more regulatory restraint in going forward. The Social Chapter as such no longer exists - it was fully absorbed into the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997 which the UK signed up to in full. And the yellow card is already active - it enables national parliaments to work together to force the Commission think twice about legislative proposals. It's the red card idea which would take this a significant step forward to enable them to actually block legislation.

Yellow, red, semantics, who cares - these are all minutiae which pale in significance against the broader thrust of Boris' message, right? Wrong. In a telling Q&A exchange with the director of the pro-EU campaign group British Influence, Boris was hit with a barrage of examples where the EU Council and new Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker had supposedly already indicated their assent for many of his reforms. Boris, clearly none the wiser, expressed some initial scepticism but ended up accepting his assertions in good faith.

The whole episode would have been a comical scene were it not for the consideration of what uninformed and undecided observers were probably thinking. There is - rightly - great pressure on policymakers pushing for the idea of EU reform to spell out what they mean in practice and to identify what is realistically achievable. To the uninitiated, to the business who wants to see reform made relevant to its operations, one would have walked away from Bloomberg today thinking that scrapping EU social and employment law was not only on the table for Britain but also on its way.

There was of course, no such commitment by EU heads of government in its list of priorities for the next five years. On ever closer union, there was a notation that this concept allowed for different speeds of integration - a start perhaps, but hardly an exemption for the UK. A vague reference to "the concerns of the UK related to the future development of the EU" needing to be addressed was given two lines.

This is absolutely not to say there are no hopeful seeds being planted. There are, and they are -very slowly- germinating. But the Mayor's wobbliness on detail allowed him to be persuaded by a rather misrepresenting Europhile that reform as he conceived of it was already well under way. In effect, the two sides simply talked past one another. At a time where business wants to see precision and honesty about the facts, it appears that the spin operation across the board is in full effect.