Interconnected

What has the EU ever done for us? Some thoughts on a new mapping project

There’s a new project being shared round today that maps EU-funded projects in the UK: here it is. It’s easy to use and very interesting to find out, for example, what projects have been funded in my home town.

Kudos to the folks who built it. Creating sites like this is hard work, and a vital part of the national discussion about the EU.

So for transparency (which is a good thing) I’m hugely in favour of this.

But in terms of what I think about the EU funding itself, I’m not so sure. The strapline for the site is What has the EU done for your area? and while in one sense that’s true, it makes me think: but this was the UK’s money to begin with, right?

Looking at the breakdown of the EU membership fee, the UK paid £13.1bn into the EU budget in 2016, and received back £5.5bn in various forms of funding (£4.5bn channeled through the public sector, and approx. £1bn direct to the private sector). So the first thing the mapping project highlights is that the UK pays more to the EU than it "gets back."

That purely budgetary framing makes me uncomfortable. Should we really be looking at what we "get back" from the EU in terms of project funding? How do we value reduced friction to trade (and associated economic boost), the reduction in defence and diplomatic spending (by being part of a bloc), the cultural benefits of having a stronger voice on the world stage, etc.

What this mapping project also highlights is, well, should the EU be choosing how this money is spent at all? When money is spent directly by the UK government there is a certain amount of democratic accountability. I know who I can complain to, I know how I can try to influence the spending criteria, and I can campaign to vote out the people ultimately responsible if I really disagree.

But for EU spending? It’s more abstract. When I see this map of EU spending in the UK, what it makes me ask is why the UK government isn’t in charge of it. That same discomfort was, of course, a reason why people voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum. Although if the UK government controlled the spending, that doesn’t imply that it could all go the NHS instead--regardless of what was written on the side of a bus--as many of these projects are vital for our agriculture, regional growth, jobs, and industrial strategy, and you wouldn’t want to stop them. So leaving the EU wouldn’t mean we’d get this money "back" in the national budget by any means.

Now, on balance, I believe Brexit is a bad idea. The UK’s contribution to the EU is only 2% of our total national budget and, as I said, the "non-spending" benefits of EU membership matter significantly, and many of these projects would be funded anyhow.

But I’m not an unequivocal booster of everything the EU does. This mapping project is fixing a huge lack of transparency. The level of democratic accountability worries me: how do we know that all of these projects are within the mandate that we’ve given to the EU under the treaties, and how can we influence the allocations? I happen to believe that these problems are addressable as a member of the EU. (And to be honest, the same concerns could be levelled at the UK government about the project grants we do control.)

So while I’m pleased (and relieved) that this spending is broadly sensible, I’m not sure it should be waved around as "hey look at all this awesome stuff we’re getting from the EU." I don’t think that’s the case it makes at all.

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My brand of weight-it-all-up ambivalence doesn’t play particularly well in this era of hyper-shareable Facebook posts and 24 hour news cycle sound bites.

However it’s by taking into account evidence like this that I’m able to say with increasing confidence that Brexit doesn’t add up. I look at what’s going on, consider alternatives, and... well, the Brexit options currently on the table look terrible, and the impending exit day of 2019 (which occurs well ahead of any trade deal being done) is so close with so little certainty around which to prepare that I fear a lot of damage and hurt will result.

It’s also this kind of easy-to-read evidence that we were lacking in the 2016 referendum, which is why I don’t think anyone (however they voted) really knew enough to make an informed decision, and why it’s perfectly ok to revisit the issue now and have a re-think before it’s too late. Given the circumstances it’s ok to change your mind.

That mapping project again: myeu.uk. More like this please!