The Costs of Divorce

James Meek

At the heart of this week’s Brexit shenanigans is a fact: Britain pays more into the European Union than it gets back. This is an opinion-free fact. (They do exist.) It takes no account of the wider benefits that membership brings to Britain, the continent and the world. The fact is there whether you believe, as I do, that some form of payment is worth it, or, as those who voted Leave last June do, that any amount is a tyrannical imposition.

One of the strangest things about the infamous Boris Johnson/Nigel Farage lie that Britain sends £350 million a week to Europe – actually two lies: the amount, and the idea that state-haters like Johnson and Farage would rather spend it on the NHS – was how unnecessary it was to the Leave campaign. If they’d used the actual, lower figure – about £220 million – it seems unlikely the voters of Britain would have shrugged and said: ‘Oh, that’s not much, is it.’

One of the consequences of the notoriety of the lie has been to obscure, particularly for Remainers, the net contribution that Britain really does make to Brussels every year. By ‘net contribution’ I mean the money the British Treasury gives the EU after the money Britain gets back has been taken into account – subsidies to British farmers, grants to British scientists, aid for poorer parts of Britain and so on.

This net contribution is considerable. In 2015, the EU had a surplus of €51 billion from 10 net donor countries to distribute to 18 net recipient countries. Germany was the biggest donor, giving €17 billion more than it received; Britain the second biggest, at €14 billion. Next came France (€6 billion) and the Netherlands (€5.5 billion), followed by Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Finland and, mysteriously, Cyprus.

Among the net recipients, the leader was Poland (€9 billion) followed by Czechia (€5.5 billion) and Romania (€5 billion). Most of the rest are other post-communist states in the east, or Mediterranean strugglers like Greece and Portugal, although Belgium is in there at number 10 (a net beneficiary to the tune of €1.5 billion) and Luxembourg, with its population of 570,000, at number 11, in the black by well over a billion euros.

This doesn’t mean, as Brexit supporters might think, and as the Great Lie had it, that Britain has a strong hand – that they need us more than we need them, that with all that money we save, we’ll be rich. The potential for catastrophic damage to the British economy as a result of old-style trade barriers between Britain and the EU is there; a hard Brexit – a crash Brexit would be a better expression – would cost the country far more than €14 billion a year.

What it does mean is that the Remainer critique needs to take into account the effect on bureaucratic psychologies across Europe, on the individual and corporate level, of suddenly losing a massive chunk of their budgets. In 2015, Britain’s net payments to the EU made up more than a quarter of the organisation’s donor-to-recipient surplus, most of it directed to the ongoing post-communist infrastructure upgrade of eastern Europe.

So far the Remainer critique has focused on two elements: the prospective economic damage to Britain, and the moral abdication Brexit represents – tribalism over humanism, chauvinism over open-mindedness, hoarding over sharing, nostalgia over imagination, jingoism over peace. This is fine as far as it goes, but there’s a danger that repulsion for the Brexit spirit leads to an over-idealising of the EU, as if it were only about humanism, open-mindedness, sharing, imagination and peace. It’s also about money.

Britain’s situation would be difficult enough if it faced an EU that merely felt betrayed and disappointed, masking its hurt with a curt determination to observe the formalities and get on with its life sans the small-minded churl across the Channel. But it’s worse than that: Britain must also deal with European leaders who face making deep, unforeseen cuts in their long term plans for the poorest regions of eastern and southern Europe. European officials experience loss of face; their own departments are trimmed back; their prestige suffers. Luxembourg falters just a little. Perhaps they blame Brexit; perhaps they blame Jean-Claude Juncker.

The week of Juncker’s dinner with Theresa May – which concluded with him ‘ten times more sceptical’ about a Brexit deal than he had been before, and a headline estimate of Britain’s exit fee in the Financial Times at €100 billion (on closer examination, the figure wasn’t much more robust than the £350 million a week claim) – has been rich in divorce metaphors. It flattered Britain that one German MEP compared the country to a deadbeat dad who wanted to leave his wife and children without a penny. Yet it also underlined how significant Britain’s contribution is to the European family outgoings. The toxic combination of emotion, residual affection, deep shared experiences, accumulated resentment and a mutual sense of being financially taken for a ride by the other one’s lawyer that has doomed many an actual divorce to a crescendo of acrimony is beginning. How often the original consideration – what’s best for the kids? – comes down to a bitter, mutually destructive battle over money.


  • 3 May 2017 at 8:33pm
    streetsj says:
    So far I've only read the first paragraph. Why be so pejorative? Why can't people who voted out just believe it's not worth it rather than "any amount is a tyrannical imposition", or indeed think the monetary contribution is irrelevant to their view on whether it is better to be part of the EU or not? Are your arguments for wanting to remain part of the EU so weak that you have to rely on characterising all leave voters as ___ (fill in your insult here)?

    I'm going to read the rest now.

    • 4 May 2017 at 5:38am
      Joe Morison says: @ streetsj
      James Meek was not characterizing all Leave voters, he was portraying the typical Leave position. The hysteria, mendacity, and willingness to animate the very worst in people that the Leave campaign exhibited are not reasons to stay in the EU (which like democracy is appalling but much better than the alternatives), but they are just recipients of contempt.

    • 4 May 2017 at 11:43am
      streetsj says: @ Joe Morison
      I don't want to be too pedantic but he doesn't say "as some of those who voted leave" or "as the lunatic fringe of leave voters" or any other construction that means a part of this set of people.

    • 5 May 2017 at 7:27am
      Joe Morison says: @ streetsj
      Because it wasn't a lunatic fringe, that sort of rhetoric was absolutely central to the Leave campaign. If the leaders of the movement you are marching with are trumpeting hysterical lies and stirring up hatred, don't be surprised when you get tarred with the same brush.

      (And you're not being pedantic, you are being literalist - no sensible reading of what Meek wrote would see him as saying that all Leave voters had that attitude to the EU.)

  • 4 May 2017 at 8:26am
    Michael Wells says:
    Great piece, thank you. At last a level-headed contribution to say that the UK leaving the EU is about money, but not only about money.

  • 4 May 2017 at 9:30am
    whisperit says:
    If the EU was not good for international capital, it would not have survived. This is what the free movement of people is ultimately about - not a commitment to the liberty of the common people, but to the flow of labour to match that of capital. And this is why the biggest financial institutions - the massive stock and bond holders, the corporations that look for state-underwritten, zero-risk, big investment - have been opposed to Brexit.

    It's not an unmixed story, of course. Progressive impulses are also behind the European project. But those are always subordinated, crippled and mutated by the kryptonite of capital.

    I have worked in the most deprived of the South Wales Valleys for years. These are areas that have benefited hugely from the EU Social Fund, and yet voted for Brexit. "What have they ever done for us?" say the people I work with, sitting in a brand new family centre, next to a brand new leisure centre, school and college, all funded by the EU.

    The key to understanding the question is to appreciate that it is not an expression of stupidity or greed, nor even of xenophobia, but of alienation.

    The socialist, collectivist impulse that made Ebbw Vale the consituency of Aneurin Bevan - the man who founded the NHS - has been perverted by money, social atomisation and the failure of the Labour Party and the Left to challenge it.(Rumours are that the Valleys might even, for the first time, turn Blue at this election).

    "What have they ever done *with* us?" is the real question that explains the collapse of the progressive European project.

    • 4 May 2017 at 11:49am
      streetsj says: @ whisperit
      I like your distinction - "with" us - very much. It captures one of the fundamental problems with the EU: it is too remote. The nation state - or at least the size of European ones - is as big as you want to be and probably still too big for people to feel a genuine affinity with.

    • 4 May 2017 at 12:54pm
      Stu Bry says: @ whisperit
      " all funded by the EU."

      As James points out all of that was funded by British tax revenue.

      It is vital not get to hung up on EU membership and work on creating a better society in or out.

    • 4 May 2017 at 8:21pm
      whisperit says: @ Stu Bry
      Cripes. If those were the salient points to be taken from my comment, I have written gibberish.

    • 4 May 2017 at 8:34pm
      whisperit says: @ streetsj
      Thanks. The UK is certainly experiencing a crisis of the nation state at the moment, and part of the reason must be what you suggest. This election will be a real test for who can best capture this sense - and whether it will tilt towards a progressive or a reactionary "localism".

  • 4 May 2017 at 9:32am
    Stu Bry says:
    "This is fine as far as it goes, but there’s a danger that repulsion for the Brexit spirit leads to an over-idealising of the EU, as if it were only about humanism, open-mindedness, sharing, imagination and peace".

    I voted remain but the downsides of the EU from a left perspective have completely vanished from political discourse: corporate tax havens within the single market, the desire to implement The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership in secret, the massively unjust welfare to land owners that is hidden behind the term CAP and the massive transfers from tax payers to Eurozone banks which are disguised as the PIIG bailouts.

    It feels very natural to suspicious of the remain fervor which has emerged and which seems to have given Blair the scent of a possible political comeback. There seems to be large numbers of voters who would claim to be progressive and left of centre yet who are far more motivated by Brexit than by malicious austerity, the ongoing destruction of the NHS, climate change and US led war mongering.

    The dangers of polarisation are made clear from a even a single across the Atlantic. Here in Scotland domestic politics is stagnating because of the independence split and the Tories are making a preposterous comeback based on nothing more than Rape Clause Ruth saying she opposes another referendum on TV half a dozen times a day. If Brexit establishes itself as the definitive issue in English politics it will come at a serious cost.

  • 4 May 2017 at 4:32pm
    paul pierce says:
    James Meek presents net contributions per country as if they are an objective indisputable fact.
    In all likelihood there are any No of ways to work this out and every statistician can come out with the No he prefers.. maybe he could tell us if he worked them out himself or who's Nos he's quoting?
    Irrespective of that and despite the democratic shortcomings of the eu it seems amazing to
    many in the eu that so many British politicians and the majority (?) or the public feel that a country the size of the U.K. cannot achieve enough influence w/i the eu and can be better off exiting.. tomany it comes accross as a xenophobic "better than" syndrome. That impression and the bad blood it creates is the biggest shame of brexit for me..

    • 4 May 2017 at 6:13pm
      Stu Bry says: @ paul pierce

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