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EU referendum: The verdict on both sides of the campaign – you can’t believe either of them

Oliver Wright chronicles the damning report from the independent fact-checking organisation ‘Full Fact' and academic initiative The UK in a Changing Europe.

Oliver Wright
Political Editor
Wednesday 27 April 2016 11:03 BST
What to believe about the EU referendum

Both sides in the European referendum debate stand accused of making “misleading and inaccurate” claims about the pro and cons of Britain’s membership in an attempt to sway votes in their favour.

A group of academics and an independent organisation that ‘fact checks’ assertions made by politicians found that both ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ campaigners were guilty of passing off questionable claims as truth.

And they warned that the public were being ill-served by the standard of the debate as a result of being “bombarded” by conflicting claims that at best were “unsupported by evidence and at worse simply untrue”.

Among the claims Full Fact and academics from The UK in a Changing Europe examined was the statement by the leave campaign that the UK sends £350 million per week to the EU. They described this statement as “wrong”.

They also dispute the assertion often quoted by the remain camp that Britain’s membership with Europe is worth £3,000 per year to every household. This, they say, is “not a credible estimate”.

Leave claim: “The unelected European Commission…runs the EU”

This claim, the report says, exaggerates the power of the Commission and understates the role of other institutions in debating, amending and passing EU laws.

It also ignores the power and influence of the EU’s member states.

A Commission proposal only becomes a EU law when it attracts the support of two majorities. It needs both a majority in the Council (made up of member states), representing at least 55 per cent of EU countries and 65 per cent of the EU population, and a majority in the Parliament that is elected by voters across the EU on a proportional basis.

Remain claim: “The CBI says that all the trade, investment, jobs and lower prices that come from our economic partnership with Europe is worth £3000 per year to every household.”

The CBI figure of £3,000 quoted by Remain campaigners is not a credible estimate, according to the research. It is based on a selection of studies produced at different times (some date back well over a decade), using different methodologies, and designed to answer different questions.

Some of the studies looked at the economic impact of EU membership to date, and some at the future impact of a vote to leave.

Some were not even specific to the UK. The report says that it doesn’t make much sense to add them up like this, nor to use the results to get a single estimate of the costs or benefits of EU membership

Leave campaign: Britain sends £350m to Brussels each week

The claim the UK sends £350 million per week to the EU is wrong the report concludes. It says this is what we would send to the EU if it wasn’t for the UK’s budget rebate. The rebate is an instant discount on what we would otherwise pay. In 2014, the gross figure was £18.8 billion making the accurate total £248 million per week. But this does not include any of the money that gets sent to Brussels but then comes back in forms of payments to areas such as agriculture.

Boris on 'project fear'

Remain claim: “Anyone arguing that they need us more than we need them should consider that half our goods exports go to the EU whereas on average just 5 per cent of EU countries’ come to the UK.”

While this is factually true these statistics overstate the proportion of UK exports that go to the EU, as a lot of goods pass through ports like Rotterdam before being shipped on to their final destination outside the EU.

The Office for National Statistics has concluded that it’s hard to put a figure on this ‘Rotterdam effect’ or to establish whether it’s a serious problem for the trade statistics.

Leave claim: “Given that the EU sells far more to us than we do to them, the remaining EU member states will seek a trade agreement with the UK that seeks to maintain the same level of free exchange of goods, services and capital as is the case today.”

Leave campaigners are correct, the report says, in claiming that it would be in the interests of the EU, at least economically, to conclude some form of free trade deal, especially for trade in goods. But that does not mean it would happen. Historically trade deals have failed – even when it has been in the interests of both sides to conclude them.

In particular, there is no comparable cross-border single market for services anywhere in the world outside the EU.

And since the UK runs a substantial trade surplus in services, whether there would be a free trade agreement in services is a key question.

Michael Gove admitted the Vote Leave campaign he led was wrong to appeal to some ‘some very low sentiments’ on immigration (Getty)

Leave claim: “Brexit is the only way we can control immigration.”

Leaving the EU would not automatically lead to a large reduction in immigration the report says.

For a start if Britain wanted to continue to participate in the EU single market after leaving the EU then one obvious way to do so would be for us to join Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein as members of the European Economic Area.

But free movement applies to EEA members, as it does to Switzerland, a non-EEA member with more limited single market access.

In fact Norway and Switzerland both have higher immigration per head of population from the EU than does the UK, as of 2013.

Remain claim: “The free movement of people helps Britons study, work and retire to Europe. A total of 2.2 million Britons live in other EU countries – almost as many as the number of EU citizens living here.”

The 2.2 million estimate is wrong the report states. While acknowledging the data is imperfect, it says the best estimate is that there are over a million British-born people living elsewhere in the EU. The 2.2 million figure comes from a 2008 estimate by the IPPR think tank, which calculated that 1.8 million UK nationals lived in other EU countries for at least a year. This rose to 2.2 million when including people who lived abroad for at least part of the year. This estimate was produced before the most recent round of census returns from those countries were available, so the researchers filled in the gaps using various assumptions. The IPPR now gives a figure in line with what other researchers say.

Leave claim: “Between 1993 and 2014, 64.7 per cent of UK laws can be deemed to be EU – influenced.

The specific 64.7 per cent number, which is taken from a report by the campaign group Business for Britain, uses some inaccurate figures. The report draws on a database of EU law to search for EU regulations passed every year between 1993 and 2014. The problem is that, as the report acknowledges, it’s tricky to use the database for this purpose – partly because it includes corrections in the count. A better source for the number of EU regulations is the European Commission. The Business for Britain report states, for example, that in 2014 the EU passed 1,904 regulations, while Commission statistics suggest it was 1,392. That would bring the 2014 proportion of UK law with an EU connection down from about 64 per cent to about 58 per cent.

The Business for Britain count also includes amendments to EU laws to reach its total. An amendment to an existing law doesn’t mean that two EU laws are in force. It is either one amended law or, if the amendment simply repeals the previous one, zero. So the 64.7 per cent figure is an overestimate of total EU laws in force and an unreliable guide to the proportionate amount.

Remain claim: “The independent House of Commons library found that the real proportion is just 13.2 per cent of our laws.”

This figure is accurate however it does not account for all the influence the EU has on our legal system. In particular, it doesn’t count EU regulations, which automatically have legal force in all member countries without the need for a national law.

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