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Leave or Remain: Who won the Brexit break-up? Here’s a look at the UK’s tortured relationship with the EU in numbers

Leave or Remain: Who won the Brexit break-up? Here’s a look at the UK’s tortured relationship with the EU in numbers
With Britain finally saying goodbye to the European Union after an agonizingly long and complicated Brexit negotiation saga, it’s a good time to cast an eye back over the history of this doomed relationship.

Who benefited most? Were Brexiteers’ fears always justified? How has decades as a member of this European club changed the face of Britain? Ultimately, who won in this Brexit break-up drama?

Let’s look at some of the numbers.

Membership fee controversy

One of the issues that has always frustrated British Eurosceptics is the so-called ‘membership fee’ and what exactly that entails. Plenty of misinformation surrounding Britain’s net contribution to Brussels has floated around over the years and the criticism has always been: ‘We contribute more than we get back in return.’

While it is correct that in bare figures, the UK has indeed paid more than it gets back, the picture was never that simple. Take the numbers from 2018, for example. That year, London would have been liable for £17 billion in contributions. But under a rebate scheme negotiated by Margaret Thatcher in the 80s, the UK was allowed a discount. That discount was about £4 billion in 2018, making London’s actual contribution £13 billion. Then there’s the fact that EU spending on the UK was a further £4 billion, making the UK’s net contribution about £9 billion.

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Those are the on-paper figures, but it’s impossible to calculate exactly how much came back to the EU in trade, jobs, investment and other benefits, due to its membership within the European club — but ultimately, plenty of Brexiteers weighed the numbers and felt it just wasn’t worth it.

Verdict: ‘Depends how you look at it.’ While technically, Brexiteers were correct that the UK gave more than it received to the EU, but the benefits membership offered weren’t always quantifiable.

Migration fears

Migration and easy cross-border travel within the EU was always another hot button issue for anti-Brussels Brits. Looking again at 2018, there were 3.6 million EU nationals residing in the UK. The number of UK nationals living in other EU countries (excluding Ireland) was significantly lower at around 785,000.

The UK, as the BBC put it, has "undeniably" become more "European" during its years as part of the club, although the numbers of people coming from elsewhere in the bloc had fallen since the Brexit saga started — and since wages in newer-member eastern European countries began to rise. 

Verdict: ‘Leavers’ were correct that more EU migrants had come to the UK’s shores than Brits who had left (though the number was falling).

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Workers’ skills and contributions

So, who were all those migrants and were they paying their way when they arrived? 

In fact, figures from the UK’s independent Migration Advisory Committee show that the average adult migrant from the European Economic Area (EAA) contributed about £2,300 more to the UK coffers than the average British resident. While workers from the old member states were most highly qualified, workers from new member states (those which joined after 2004) were also found to be more highly qualified than their British neighbors, on average. Overall, EEA migrants paid £4.7 billion more in taxes than they claimed in benefits and other public services.

Verdict: Leavers complained about the calibre of migrants arriving to Britain, but Remainers were correct to argue that migrants tended to arrive with more skills than their British peers — and were not simply draining the public purse.

Exports, imports and trade deficit

One of the biggest tasks for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the ‘transition period’ (slated to end in December) will be to negotiate a trade deal with Brussels that will be amenable to both sides.

That’s crucial, because with 45 percent of UK goods and services bound for the EU and 53 percent of imports coming from the EU in 2018, the bloc is London’s biggest trading partner. The goal for Johnson will be to ensure that hindrances to trade post-Brexit are as few as possible.

Verdict: Britain’s trade deficit with the EU was £66 billion in 2018 — but what happens on trade next will be determined by Johnson’s ability to strike a good deal with Brussels.

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Crime links

Another concern for Eurosceptics has always been that EU migration, particularly from poor eastern nations, would have an impact on crime and that UK prisons have been “filling up with foreigners.” Were they right about a link? Well, the evidence there is mixed.

According to FullFact, an independent fact-checking organization, foreign citizens make up about nine percent of Britain’s overall population and 12 percent of its prison population. MAC’s study found that citizens of new member states were indeed more likely to receive a caution or criminal conviction than British residents — but there’s a catch. Migrant workers are disproportionately young men and this is the demographic, from any cultural background, that are most likely to break the law anyway.

Eastern Europeans were disproportionately more likely to be convicted for theft between 2012 and 2016, yet British and Irish born residents were more likely to engage in violent crime and drug offences, so it’s a hard link to pin down — and, like many of the controversies that plagued the UK’s EU membership, it’s never been an entirely clear-cut picture.

Verdict: This is a mixed picture. Some migrants, do of course, commit crimes, but from the limited research available, the theory that rising migration is associated with big jumps in the crime rate does not hold.

While Brexit Night does mark the point of no return, there is still a huge amount to be hashed out between London and Brussels in the coming months as the so-called 'transition period' comes into effect — so ultimately, maybe the final winner in this long-running saga is yet to be determined.

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