The influential Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston has defected to the remain camp because of it; the UK Statistics Authority no longer says it is potentially misleading, but misleading plain and simple; and for the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies, it is “absurd”.
But still the Vote Leave campaign stands by the claim, splashed in large letters across their battlebus: “We send the EU £350m a week.”
In the face of a concerted attack, Boris Johnson has defended it. John Redwood has done the same, albeit with some embarrassment, on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. Michael Gove argued it on Sky, and Vote Leave’s videos and official campaign briefing continue to use the figure.
Who is right?
The real problem is the word “send”, which Vote Leave seems to have difficulty understanding. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb means to “cause to go or be taken to a particular destination; arrange for the delivery of”.
Assuming we accept that definition, then it is simply and very demonstrably not true to say that Britain “sends” £350m a week to the EU. That amount of money does not leave (and has never left) Britain each week, nor does it arrive in Brussels.
The sum of £350m a week is based on the Treasury’s estimation of the gross amount the UK contributed to the EU last year, which was £17.8bn, or £342m a week.
This annual figure is purely hypothetical, however, because since Margaret Thatcher negotiated Britain’s rebate in 1984, the UK has been required to pay significantly less than the 1% of national GDP that member states are normally expected to pay into the EU’s collective budget.
The same Treasury figures clearly show Britain’s EU budget rebate last year was £4.9bn. Deduct that from £17.8bn and you get £12.9bn – or £248m a week. This is the sum now recognised by the independent fact-checking organisation Full Facts.
Plus, as Prof Ian Begg of the London School of Economics notes, the rebate is deducted before any payment is made, so it is simply wrong – and arguably, given the fuss that has been made about the question, deliberately untruthful – to say Britain “sends the EU £350m a week”. The Treasury actually remits just over £100m less a week.
The remain camp further argues – although Vote Leave could rebut this more easily – that even the lesser weekly sum of £248m does not fairly reflect the cost to the UK of EU membership, because it ignores EU spending on the UK.
Last year, the Treasury estimated these receipts from Brussels at £4.4bn, money spent mainly in the private sector but also distributed by public bodies, to farmers and poorer parts of the UK, such as Cornwall and south Wales.
As pointed out by InFacts, which aims to make “the fact-based case for remain”, the EU also injects money directly into the UK’s private sector, for example, for scientific research through programmes such as Horizon2020. The most recent figure for this, from 2013, is £1.4bn.
Deduct both the rebate (£4.9bn), which is never actually paid, and the money that is paid but sent back (£5.8bn), from the gross £17.8bn annual “membership fee” and you arrive at a net figure of £7.1bn. This equates to £136m a week, less than 40% of the amount splashed on the battlebus.
Vote Leave has also tried to justify the £350m figure by saying the British rebate may change in future – but the UK has a veto over that happening. And in any case, its claim that “We send …” is written in the present tense.
It is also misleading of Vote Leave to suggest – as it does in the second half of that battlebus slogan, “Let’s fund our NHS instead” – that whatever amount Britain saves on its “membership fees” by leaving the EU would be available to spend on public services. Unless a future Westminster government decides to stop spending money on British farmers, scientific research and the country’s poorer regions, it plainly would not.
The leave camp might just about have been able to get away with saying that the UK sends £248m a week to Brussels (which at least takes account of the rebate). It can argue all it likes that £350m is a “gross figure”. But it cannot, in all conscience, get away with the use of the word “send”.
Wollaston, the IFS, the UK Statistics Authority, Nicola Sturgeon, Amber Rudd and Angela Eagle are right: Vote Leave’s claim that Britain sends £350m a week to Brussels is a lie.