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
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder