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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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.