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
Show Hide image

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. 

Getty
Show Hide image

Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.