Vote Leave’s “The UK and the European Union: The facts”

If you haven’t received it already then you are likely to soon. This is Vote Leave’s “Fact sheet” on the EU referendum.


You could be forgiven for not realising this has come from Vote Leave, as it’s made to look like those informational leaflets you get about your water supply, or some other public service – where branding is surplus to requirements.

Clearly this is a intended to be perceived as offering neutral information, and to downplay the the fact that it’s from an organisation campaigning for the UK to leave the EU.  The fact that it’s from Vote Leave is only revealed in the terms and conditions on the back cover.

It’s important to know who is behind such correspondence so you can establish context for the communication, and to understand that the facts presented are likely to serve the agenda of the author.  As such, this tactic is ethically questionable, and represents the bare minimum permitted by the Electoral Commission. Unsurprisingly there has been a backlash against this on Twitter, and there are likely to be many that feel this is underhand – assuming they actually get round to reading the small print.

On a point of balance, we have also raised issue previously with the “IN” campaign’s use of the word “Europe” rather than “European Union” in their postal leaflets here.

So, how do these ‘facts’ stack up?

Looking at each in turn…

The UK joined the European Union in 1973
Back then, it was known as the Common Market. But over the past 43 years, the EU has taken control over more and more areas which don’t have anything to do with trade – such as our borders, our public services, and whether prisoners have the right to vote.

It’s fair to say the EU has expanded its remit since 1973 into areas of political significance; it is now recognised to be a “politico-economic union”.1)Wikipedia: The European Union[[contid]]

The examples offered are odd ones to use.  Being outside the Schengen zone, the UK still has security controls at its borders. The extent to which the EU exercises any direct control over UK borders is debatable. It would make more sense to cite free movement – and the fact that that any citizen of another EU member state can live and work in the UK.

The reference to EU control on public services is also an odd one. To what extent has the EU taken control over public services? Certainly there are EU rules on state aids and subsidies, there’s competition policy, regulatory aspects, and market liberalisation – but nothing that amounts to the EU “taking control”. Perhaps they are talking about EU migrants’ access to the benefits system?

The prisoner’s “right to vote”.  This is a red herring, as it’s the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) that has said banning most prisoners from voting is a breach of their human rights. The ECtHR is not an institution of the European Union and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is not an EU convention. It is perfectly possible the UK would remain a participant in the ECHR is the UK votes to leave the EU, as we discuss here.

The main areas in which the EU impacts the UK are:

  • Free trade rules of the single market (no quotas or tariffs for trade within the EU, a common regulatory framework)
  • Common Commercial policies (such as the CAP and CFP, to protect EU businesses)
  • Competition law (to stop anti-competitive practices)
  • Free movement (the right to live and work anywhere in the EU)
  • Energy efficiency (ratings)
  • Security and Justice (such as the EAW )
  • Employment law (such as the Working Time Directive)

When we joined, there were just 9 member states
Now there are 28, the most recent being Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia. Five more countries are being considered for membership: Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey. If they are let in, they will have the same rights as other member states.

This is correct.2)European Union: Countries[[contid]]  There is some debate as to “how close” Turkey is in particular to being able to join the European Union as a full member – it applied in 1987 and some estimate it’s still 10-15 years away from fulfilling all the necessary criteria for membership.3)European Union: Turkey membership status[[contid]]

New applications can be vetoed by existing members, however the Conservatives “…support continued enlargement of the EU to new members, but with new mechanisms in place to “prevent vast migrations across the Continent”.4)BBC: Q&A: What Britain wants from Europe[[contid]]

When countries are “let in” there tends to be some temporary transitional controls to restrict access to work and benefits in richer EU countries – as there were on Romania and Bulgaria.5)BBC: Romania and Bulgaria EU migration restrictions lifted[[contid]]

More than half of net migration to the UK comes from the EU
More than a quarter of a million people came to the UK from the EU in the 12 months to September 2015 – the equivalent of a city the size of Plymouth or Newcastle in just one year.

For the year ending September 2015, the ONS’s provisional figures do indeed say that 257,000 people migrated to the UK from other EU countries.

However, in terms of net migration, the same set of provisional figures indicate a figure of +172,000 for EU migration, and +191,000 for non-EU migration6)ONS: Long-term international migration estimates[[contid]]  The claim that “more than half of net migration to the UK comes from the EU” is based on EU net migration as a proportion of the overall net migration figure of +323,000 which includes British citizens emigrating.  Since both EU and non-EU net migration cannot both account for “more than half” of net migration, it would be more accurate to exclude British emigration – in which case EU net migration is 47% as we show here.

While we’re in the EU, the UK can’t make trade deals on our own
This means we currently have no trade deals with key allies such as Australia, New Zealand or the USA – or important growing economies like India, China or Brazil. Instead of making a deal which is best for the UK, we have to wait for 27 other countries to agree it.

Whilst the UK is a member of the EU’s customs union it cannot make trade deals on its own. Non-member Turkey is also a participant of the EU customs union, and as a result it too can’t make trade deals on its own.

Whilst trade deals can facilitate trade between nations, the lack of a trade deal is not necessarily prohibitive to doing trade. The US is both the UK’s and the EU’s largest trading partner – and China is the EU’s second largest import partner.7)EU: European Union Trade in the World[[contid]]  We discuss UK and EU trade in more detail here.

It can be argued that trade agreements with these nations could stimulate more trade, and also argued that being outside the EU’s customs union may result in a decrease in EU trade.

The EU costs us £350 million a week
That’s enough to build a new NHS hospital every week of the year. We get less than half of this money back, and we have no control over the way it’s spent – that’s decided by politicians and officials in Brussels, rather than the people we elect here.

This is the gross figure. It should really be accompanied by a net figure, which is the true “cost” to the UK public finances of EU membership.  The net figure which includes the UK’s rebate and money it receives back in subsidies and regional development funding is £8.5bn (2014) – i.e. £171 million a week.

To accurately assess whether EU membership is a net cost or net gain to the UK economy (as a whole) is very complex – as the House of Commons Library states: “Framing the aggregate impact in terms of a single number, or even irrefutably demonstrating that the net effects are positive or negative, is a formidably difficult exercise. This is because many of the costs and benefits are subjective or intangible. It is also because a host of assumptions must be made to reach an estimate.”8)House of Commons Library: UK-EU economic relations SN06091[[contid]]

You don’t have to be a member of the EU to trade with it
Switzerland is not in the EU and it exports more per person to the EU than we do. The big banks and multinationals might be lobbying to keep us in the EU, but small and medium-sized businesses feel differently. Only 6 per cent of UK firms export to the EU, yet all have to abide by EU regulations on their business.

Indeed you don’t have to a member of the EU to trade with it, as the EU’s and the UK’s trade figures show.9)EU: European Union Trade in the World[[contid]]  However to have “full” access to the EU’s single market without tariffs and customs controls, you do need to be member of the EU or a member of the European Economic Area (EEA).

Full access to the EU single market has (to-date) necessitated inclusion of the free movement of people – as is the case for Switzerland as we discuss here.

The extent to which small and medium sized businesses support or oppose EU membership varies, and is most likely governed by how much their business is impacted by EU regulations and where their customers tend to be located.

EU law overrules UK law
This stops the British public from being able to vote out the politicians who make our laws. EU judges have already overruled British laws on issues like counter-terrorism powers, immigration, VAT, and prisoner voting. Even the Government’s proposed new deal can be overturned after the referendum: it is not legally binding.

EU law does prevail over UK law.  The European Communities Act (ECA), explicitly states that the UK parliament is unable to create laws that conflict with (or contradict) European laws, and that UK law courts would have to “dis-apply legislation which is inconsistent with the EU law”.  It also states that if there’s a situation where EU law is in doubt, the UK courts have to refer the question to the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

Despite this it can be argued that UK parliament is sovereign over EU courts for the simple reason that the UK parliament has chosen to delegate powers to the EU – and in theory can retract them, but not on a case-by-case basis. We discuss this in more detail here.

The EU is a combination of democratically elected bodies and unelected bodies. EU laws are proposed by the unelected European Commission*, but are passed by the directly elected European Parliament and/or the indirectly elected European Council. The British public cannot alone vote out the EU politicians that pass EU laws, but if joined by the voting public of other member states, they can.

*Except in “specific cases” provided for by the Treaties, where legislative acts may be adopted on the initiative of a group of Member States or of the European Parliament,on a recommendation from the European Central Bank or at the request of the Court of Justice, or the European Investment Bank.10)EU Democrats: TFEU[[contid]]

On matter such as counter-terrorism, immigration, and prisoner voting – frequently these are human rights rulings which are dealt with by the non-EU European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and not the EU’s European Court of Justice (ECJ) – however the ECJ can rule on human rights matters that concern EU law, and the ECJ does uphold the European Union VAT directive which seeks to harmonise VAT levels by setting minimum VAT levels.

The Government’s “New Deal” is only in part legally binding, as this excellent Full Fact analysis explains.

There are risks in voting either way
Experts, politicians, and businesses are divided. People have to weigh up the risks and potential benefits of each course of action for themselves.

Of course, there are risks and rewards available for remaining in or leaving the EU. The future is unknown. Some people, businesses and institutions will benefit from EU membership and others will not. The historical record and the status quo of being a member may offer a better probability of what’s to come if the UK remains in the EU, but the EU is also evolving and tackling its own challenges. Since the decision has been handed to the British public, it is indeed up to individuals to weigh up what it means to them.

Please note: This is an open commentary and may be updated at any time to take into account new information.  Please direct any feedback via our form here.

Write for us? We are interested in hearing from guest bloggers who can offer objective analysis of developments throughout the EU referendum campaign. Email editorial[at]pollstation[dot]com.

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6 Comments on "Vote Leave’s “The UK and the European Union: The facts”"

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4 years 10 months ago

It depends on how you define “public services” and “control.” Large parts of our rail network, our electricity generation and distribution, our water supply and our waste management are owned and/or controlled by French, German or Dutch companies, some of the state-owned.

4 years 10 months ago

Indeed they are, though it can be argued that the EU sets competition policy so will prevent monopolistic or non-competitive practices. What’s interesting is that the prospective “single market for services” and “TTIP” are set to facilitate non-domestic firms operating in the domestic services sectors, so we could see more of that. Of course it works both ways, so UK firms could also benefit providing services outside the UK.

4 years 9 months ago
Are you claiming the EU has a competition policy in place that prevents monopolistic or non competitive practices in the world of commerce? As I have understood it the TTIP deal lays out plans to allow private enterprise to compete with the public sector services like the nhs for contracts with the EU itself having the authority to veto in this case the nhs from securing its bid. That’s not real competition that’s selling protectionist policy for private enterprise the EU is cosied up to, it in reality neutralises any chance for competition, facilitating the very nature in which monopolies… Read more »
5 years 12 days ago

If you are going to argue that Brexit will allow us to control our borders (in the sense of restricting immigration from EU countries) then you can’t also use a Single Market country like Switzerland (or the EFTA-EEA nations), with free movement of people, as an example of how successfully one can trade with the EU despite not being a member.


4 years 10 months ago

That is true. A better example would have been the US or China.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
5 years 16 days ago
There is more than enough evidence to show any jury trial, that joining the EEC back in 1973 was an act of high treason, for the people behind the Treaty of Accession in 1972, in full knowledge of the repercussions of joining this “trading block”. It would mean almost total loss of sovereignty by the end of the century (See FCO30/1048 of 1971 and the Werner Report of 1970)This was an act of treachery performed by Ted Heath, Roy Jenkins, Douglas Hurd and various others in the Cabinet Office & Foreign Office. Therefore a treaty signed under such treason is… Read more »