The British EU referendum is entering its final stretch. The two sides have started up again after suspending their campaigns over the weekend, following the tragic murder of British MP Jo Cox. On Thursday 23 June, polling stations will open across the country and British voters will decide the future of their island.
Have you already made your mind up which way to vote? Do YOU think Britain should leave the European Union? Let us know what you think in the poll below:
Today, we’ll be talking about one of the most controversial figures of the campaign. No, not Nigel Farage or Bob Geldof. We mean the figure of £350 million.
The official Leave campaign argues that membership of the EU costs Britain £350 million per week in membership fees, and that this money should be spent instead on “our priorities like the NHS”. The Remain side disputes this number, and argues that leaving the EU wouldn’t free up money to be spent elsewhere.
There is certainly some confusion among our readers about the numbers involved. Many commenters, including Bobbieboy and Maria, use a figure of £55 million a day (which would be £385 million per week). Mike even argues it’s £350 million a day. Of course, when numbers get this big, there’s bound to be confusion; the sums involved are so vast, what difference does a few million make?
The key question, though, is whether this money could be spent on different things. Anne puts it very succinctly:
We can spend our £55 million a day on our NHS and schools and helping to eliminate the need for food banks instead of paying un-elected, mostly men, to zoom around in private jets.
To get a response to Anne, we put her comment to Michael Heseltine, former Deputy Prime Minister under Margaret Thatcher, and one of the most prominent pro-Europeans in Thatcher’s cabinet. What would he say?
This is the saddest of all the many claims that those who want to leave Europe have made… The argument is: if we come out, we save 7 billion pounds a year. But, of course, it doesn’t work like that. There are two countries – Norway and Switzerland – who are not members of the European Union but have got trading agreements of the sort that we would have to renegotiate with Europe. And, if you actually look at what they pay for their trading agreements, it’s quite obvious that there would be very little saving, if any, for Britain, because we would have to agree as part of the new negotiations the cost of entry to that market.
But, you know, there is one fundamental difference. Norway, and Switzerland – although having access, and paying for that access – get told the conditions upon which their industrialists can trade. If we put ourselves in that position, we know that the French, Germans, Italians, Spanish, other industrial countries within the European Union, would set the rules, and they would tell us what we had to do. By being a member of the Single European Market, we help design the rules. So, A) We wouldn’t save any money. And B) We would be told what conditions would apply to us.
For another perspective, we also put the same comment to Professor Tim Congdon, a former member of the Treasury Panel of Independent Forecasters and one of the “Wise Men” who advised the Chancellor on economic policy between 1992 and 1997. What would he say to Anne?
Britain sends a contribution to EU institutions under the treaties we have signed with the other EU Member States. The highest number that’s appeared in official documents of payments to the EU is a gross contribution of a bit over £20 billion. Now, if you divide £20 billion by 52, of course you get a figure that is about £350 million a week. But this figure is somewhat misleading, because some of that gross contribution we don’t really pay. There is a rebate, which was negotiated by Margaret Thatcher in 1984, and the highest figure that we have paid in any one year in the past is £17 billion, which is about £330 million a week. That was in 2013, according to one definition of these matters.
The figure put out by Vote Leave, £350 million, is an exaggeration in that sense, and not the truth. But it’s an exaggeration founded in fact. The correct figure is more like £200-250 million, and it varies from year to year. It isn’t a sort of cast-iron figure for all time, but something of that size is what we pay to the European Union as a sort of membership fee. If we left, yes, that money would be available to spend on the NHS – if that is what the British government decided. For myself, my view is that the important thing today is to get our budget deficit down, and I wouldn’t have made a promise to spend more on the NHS. I think that was a mistake. However, it is true that, if Britain left the European Union, there would be an extra £200 million at least, per week, available to spend by the British government on whatever it wished, and it could spend it on the NHS if that’s what it thought the British people wanted.
Would leaving the EU save Britain money? Does membership of the European Union really cost the UK £350 million a week? Can that money be spent on the NHS? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!