How much would we save from leaving the EU? Here I agree with Peter: not as much as some of the BREXIT campaigners would have us think. Fees and costs would still arise on our continued membership of the Single Market – just as Norway and Switzerland have found.
And government savings of any sort have an innate capacity to shrink before our eyes: exit levies, unforeseen charges, unanticipated costs. And would we not still have to fund an extensive UK government office in Brussels to oversee present and future legislation?
But savings there would certainly be. And it’s quite an exercise in sophistry to make them disappear to almost nothing.
Such an exercise overlooks two points. The first is that, while we enjoy grants and subsidies from Brussels, it’s still UK taxpayer money being recycled back. It’s not a “gift” from the EU, but something we have already paid for.
That’s why the gross contribution – £19.6 billion reckoned for this year, rising to a forecast £20.3 billion in 2020 – is still an important figure to bear in mind.
And there is a loss to the UK of our ability to determine by ourselves where that money goes. It is money raised from UK taxpayers, its disbursement determined in Brussels, and with the residual cost not rebated to the UK but retained. The UK has effectively lost control.
The rebate won by Margaret Thatcher is indeed a significant sum, now estimated to be worth £4.3 billion. But it was achieved in the teeth of ferocious opposition from the EU and the likes of EU cheerleaders such as Peter Sutherland.
And let’s not forget that it was only finally conceded when, as Nigel Lawson revealed in his memoirs, the UK Treasury prepared a memorandum on a UK exit from the EU in the event of the rebate not being achieved. It was a ruse, of course – but the EU Commission was taken in, and only then was the rebate grudgingly conceded.
How unpleasant it is for leading diplomats to have to play hardball. But this is the way of the EU. Little to nothing is conceded unless there is a direct and tangible threat of adverse consequence – in this case, the withdrawal of the UK which at the time was the EU’s second largest paymaster. Little wonder the prospect of withdrawal concentrated minds.
And little wonder Euro sceptic MPS complained that Prime Minister David Cameron’s “re-negotiation” achieved so little, when there was no credible Plan B prepared by the Treasury to deal with a UK exit.
My second concern is this. Very little by way of independent audit appears to have been undertaken on the efficacy of the EU’s structural fund and regional aid disbursements. Much of the money earmarked for economic uplift in the eastern European economies has disappeared without sign of tangible benefit. And the EU’s own accounts leave much to be desired.
Indeed, the EU has not achieved an unqualified audit for decades.
Then there is corruption, estimated by the European Commission to cost £99 billion (€120bn) a year – this in a report that urged Britain to do more to fight foreign bribery.
The commission declined to set out any ranking of corruption levels country by country in its 2014 report and decided to suppress findings on fraud within European Union institutions.
Cecilia Malmstroem, the European home affairs commissioner described levels of corruption across the EU as “breath-taking” and criticised governments for failing to tackle the problem.
This does not speak well of the EU’s claims to transparency and accountability.
No government is free from “shrinkage” in one form or another. But in the case of the EU which prides itself on being a body with strict financial oversight, all manner of exemptions and reliefs were made, either to help aspirant countries meet membership criteria or maintain such criteria once in.
When it comes to the bending of “strict fiscal rules”, the EU could teach Uri Geller a thing or two.