European MPs attend a debate on the future of European Union at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on January 15, 2013 during a plenary session. Photo: Getty Images
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An EU explainer for the easily bored: the cost to the UK

Frances Robinson continues her series on what we really need to know about the EU. This week: migration and the money.

OK. I know what the institutions are, get the whole free trade bloc thing, and I totally appreciate maternity leave. How much does this actually cost? The EU budget is the one subject guaranteed to leave even the most hardened Brussels correspondent cry-laughing hysterically while downing La Chouffe in the Hairy Canary* at 2am. 

Back of an envelope? If you want a lot of figures from a wide range of sources, Europe: In or Out? Everything you need to know by David Charter of the Times is a good read. He did his fair share of late-night summits and it's stuffed with interesting numbers. If you want to poke the figures around yourself, they're on the commission website here. Keep a Belgian beer on standby. 

Lies, damned lies and statistics? And then some. One thing to think about at all times: the UK net contribution to the EU budget is less than 0.5 per cent of British GDP. Other things: The figures involved are very volatile (check out page 14 of this treasury report). And money that goes from the EU to non-government organizations - like scientific research - isn't in the main figures. Of course there's the rebate, on top of all of that. Oh, and pound-euro currency fluctuation.

*glug glug glug* Mmmmm, Chouffe. Alright. The UK's annual net contribution to the EU in 2013, according to Mr Charter's book and Fullfact, basically works out somewhere around £8.6bn. Mr. Dixon reckons it's very slightly lower at £8.3bn - or around half a per cent of our GDP.  

Mmmmhmmm. The EU Commission's office in the UK puts the Operating Budgetary Balance - the gross sum the UK puts into the EU budget, minus the money that flows back to the UK, whether via government bodies or directly to beneficiaries - at £6.7bn. They also point out that on a per capita basis, we contribute less than Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Austria, Finland and Belgium.

Still sounds like a lot... Well, the Confederation of British Industry - hardly a fluffy bunch of Bruges graduates - suggests the direct net economic benefits of membership to the UK are between £62bn and £78bn every year.

What's Colin Farrell got to do with it? Not In Bruges. It's handy Brussels shorthand for the College of Europe, the Bruges-based institute where graduates go to study the EU and forge the power couples of tomorrow: Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the Danish PM who took that selfie with Barack Obama, met her husband - Neil Kinnock's son - there. Other alumni include Finnish PM and triathlon machine Alex Stubb... and Nick Clegg.

Sounds fancy. One degree from Oxford is enough. What are some things David Cameron could ask for in this renegotiation? He said he'd talk about migration? Free movement of people is of one of the four pillars of the single market. So asking to remove it is like saying you want to join the meat pie appreciation club, but you're vegetarian and want appropriate catering.

But I've got a senstitive stomach! Not everyone has: according to these figures from Hansard, there are 2.2 million Brits living in other EU countries, which more or less balances the 2.4 million EU citizens living the UK. The Brits mainly went to Spain and Ireland, while the two biggest groups coming here are Polish and Irish.

Happy St Patrick's Day! Dziękuję. According to the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory, less than 5 per cent of EU migrants are claiming jobseekers allowance, while less than 10 per cent are claiming other DWP working age benefits. 

But this guy down the pub said... The commission asked the UK for years to provide figures, rather than anecdotes, on EU migrants claiming benefits – and it didn'tThe UK can change welfare rules if it wants, and of course they vary between the different EU member states. Likewise, EU rules allow countries to put temporary brakes on migration - the UK didn't in the early 2000s, while others did, and more people came than forecast. So maybe that flexibility could be increased.

What does the EU say? Separately, the European Commission is working on a new package of rules this year, which would enable countries to tackle abuse by better coordination of national social security systems. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said of course he wants the UK to stay in, but that freedom of movement for workers is non-negociable. "There are red lines... You can't change the treaty." 

OMG Treaties! What does Merkel think, everyone knows Ange is the real boss? In fact, Germany has faced the same issue: last year, an ECJ Advocate-General said Germany could refuse to pay unemployment benefits to an EU migrant who hadn't tried to find work. And anyone who's been to Mallorca will have noticed there are even more German than Brits living there. Just don't test the limits of free movement in the bar queues on Paseo Maritimo.

I'm detecting a theme. Yes. Another one is we're annoying the hell out of people by not actually saying what we want. German Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Roth told Bloomberg: "We would welcome it if difficulties with the EU were to be identified concretely - and it was made clear what the UK's expectations of the EU are."

It's all good, David Cameron's on BuzzFeed! It's a great time to be easily bored. Bet he cleared it up. He took a question on the EU renegotiation. The very last one. From the audience, after he'd discussed Aston Villa.

Did he talk about treaties? He did. "If you get me, you get a renegotiation and a referendum," he told the comedy genius listicle factory-slash-politics powerhouse. "We never wanted the ever-closer union that was written into the treaty, and I want it written out of our part of the Treaty."

The treaties that everyone says it would be a complete nightmare to renegotiate? Coming soon: "Faces of 27 European leaders who can't even with Dave right now." 

(*An Irish bar within sprinting distance of Justus Lipsius Building, where EU summits are held.)

Frances Robinson has been covering the EU since 2006. Previously a staffer at the Wall Street Journal, she returned to the UK after a decade abroad to talk and write about the UK-EU relationship. 

Photo: Getty Images
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How can the left make the case for immigration?

All too often, we drift into telling people we want to convince that they just don't get it.

We don’t give the public enough credit. You’ll often hear their views dismissed with sighs in intellectual circles. In fact on most issues the public are broadly sensible, most are these days supportive of cutting the deficit and dubious about political giveaways, but in favor of protecting spending on the NHS and education. Yet there is one issue where most, “knowledgeable” folks will tell you the public are well out of step: immigration. 

With [today’s] net migration figures showing yet another record high, it is an ever more salient issue. On a lot of measures ‘too much immigration’ ranks highest as the number one concern (see Ipossmori). The ongoing rise of right wing political parties across Europe demonstrates that simply enough. But concerns about immigration don’t just sit with those with more extreme views, they’re also shared across the mainstream of public opinion. Yet unlike thinking on cutting the deficit or funding the NHS the public consensus that immigration is bad for Britain, flies flat in the face of the intellectual consensus, and by that I mean the economics. 

Given the intense public debate many a study has tried to spell out the economic impact of immigration, most find that it is positive. Immigration boosts the nation’s GDP. As the theory goes this is because immigrants bring with them entrepreneurialism and new ideas to the economy. This means firstly that they help start new ventures that in turn create more wealth and jobs for natives. They also help the supply chains to keep ticking. A example being British agriculture, where seasonal workers are are needed, for example, to pick the strawberries which help keeps the farms, the truckers and the sellers in business. 

Most studies also find little evidence of British jobs being lost (or displaced) due to immigrants, certainly when the economy is growing. Indeed economists refer to such “ “they’re” taking our jobs” arguments as the “lump of labour fallacy’. On top of all that the average migrant is younger than the native population and less likely to rely on welfare, so their net contribution to the state coffers are more likely to be positive than natives as they don’t draw as much state spending from pensions or the NHS. 

So why haven't the public cottoned on? Many progressive types dismiss such views as racist or xenophobic. But it turns out this is to misunderstand the public just as much as the public ‘misunderstand’ immigration. When you study people’s views on immigration more closely it becomes clear why. Far from being racist most people asked by focus groups cite practical concerns with immigration. Indeed if you go by the British Social Attitudes Survey a much smaller number of people express racist view than say they are concerned about migration.  

The think tank British Future broadly set out that while a quarter of people are opposed to immigration in principle and another quarter are positive about it the majority are concerned for practical reasons - concerns about whether the NHS can cope, whether there are enough social houses, whether our border controls are up to scratch and whether we know how many people are coming here in the first place (we don’t since exit checks were scrapped, they only came back a few months ago). But more than anything else they also have very little confidence that government can or wants to do anything about it. 

This truth, which is to often ignored, begets two things. Firstly, we go about making the argument in the wrong way. Telling someone “you don’t understand immigration is good for our economy etc etc” is going to get a reaction which says “this person just doesn't get my concerns”. Despite the moans of progressives, this is precisely why you won't hear left leaning politicians with any nous ‘preaching’ the the unconditional benefits of immigration.

More importantly, the economic arguments miss the central issue that those concerned with immigration have, that the benefits and effects of it are not shared fairly. Firstly migrants don’t settle homogeneously across the country, some areas have heavy influxes other have very little. So while the net effect of immigration may be positive on the national tax take that doesn't mean that public services in certain areas don’t loose out. Now there isn't clear evidence of this being the case, but that could just as well be because we don’t record the usage of public services by citizenship status. 

The effects are also not equal on the income scale, because while those of us with higher incomes scale tend to benefit from cheep labour in construction, care or agriculture (where many lower skilled migrants go) the lower paid British minority who work in those sectors do see small downward pressure on their wages. 

It’s these senses of unfairness of how migration has been managed (or not) that leads to the sense of concern and resentment. And any arguments about the benefit to the UK economy fail to answer the question of what about my local economy or my bit of the labour market. 

Its worth saying that most of these concerns are over-egged and misused by opponents of immigration. Its only a small factor in stagnating wages, and few local areas are really overrun. But the narrative is all important, if you want to win this argument you have to understand the concerns of the people you are trying to convince. That means the right way to make the argument about immigration is to start by acknowledging your opponents concerns - we do need better border controls and to manage demands on public services. Then persuade them that if we did pull up the drawbridge there is much we’d loose in smart entrepreneurs and in cultural diversity. 

Just whatever you do, don’t call them racist, they’re probably not.

Steve O'Neill was deputy head of policy for the Liberal Democrats until the election.