The cost of Brexit

How much does the UK’s membership of the EU actually cost? And, in fact, does being in the EU represent a net economic benefit, rather than a net cost?

If you were to believe the information provided by Vote Leave, you might think you’d know that the answer. Vote Leave has claimed that membership of the EU costs the UK about £18 billion per year, the equivalent of about £280 per person per year. However, this figure does not include the substantial rebates and public/private sector receipts that the UK receives from the EU – once these are taken into account the actual direct budgetary cost of the UK’s membership of the EU is about £8.4 billion, or £131 per person, per year (i.e. less than half of the original Vote Leave claim).

Moreover, the Vote Leave figure only includes the direct budgetary costs of being part of the EU. Importantly, it does not include, nor does the Vote Leave campaign attempt to include, any “indirect” benefits that result from EU membership. Such indirect benefits include, for example, any jobs or exports resulting from trade with EU countries that would not otherwise occur absent EU membership. If membership of the EU increases UK output above what it would have been if the UK was not part of the EU (which is likely to be the case), then leaving the EU would result in a decrease in UK output.

This could happen for such wide-ranging reasons as EU consumers have more diverse tastes than just those in the UK allowing a larger number of different firms to flourish in the UK and export their output to the EU than would otherwise prevail if the UK left the EU and UK firms would have reduced demand from EU countries; or collaboration between EU and UK firms enables a wider spread of technology that would not be possible after Brexit such that UK productivity is higher than it would be outside the EU; or membership of the EU encourages investment not just from EU firms but from firms located in the Rest of the World that would not occur if the UK were to leave the EU. There are plenty of other potential mechanisms through which EU membership increases UK output.

Importantly, although Vote Leave has not attempted to include such factors, the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) has done so and finds that leaving the EU would reduce the UK’s output by at least £850 per household per year. That is the best case scenario for the Vote Leave supporters. Note, too, that this only includes “static trade consequences” – i.e. the impact that can be attributed just to losing the ability to trade freely with EU countries; it does not include any of the costs associated with reduced migration, technology transfer, investment etc that would also result from leaving the EU. In fact, once these factors are taken into account, the cost of leaving the EU could be as high as £6,400 per household per year.

As such, the £850 figure likely underestimates the true cost of leaving the EU.

Nonetheless, that is not to say that every part of the CEP analysis is beyond criticism. For example, the study assumes that intra-EU trade costs will continue to fall as they have done in the past, but does not provide any evidence to suggest that such an assumption is reasonable. If, in fact, intra-EU trade costs were to fall less quickly than assumed by the study, then the costs to leaving the EU would be reduced.

Moreover, little information is provided regarding how the estimates of the cost of leaving the EU that account for the aforementioned “dynamic” factors (such as migration and investment) are obtained. Given that those estimates are likely to be based (at least in part) on complex (albeit commonly used) statistical methods, a higher level of transparency regarding the approach used would be welcome so as to enable a higher degree of confidence that the estimates have been obtained via a reasonable approach.

Overall, therefore, although the Vote Leave figure regarding the benefits of leaving the EU is an egregious over-estimation, and it is actually highly likely that there would be a large net cost to leaving the EU, it is unclear what exactly the cost per household per year is. However, this uncertainty regarding the exact cost should not detract from the fact that the cost to leaving the EU is large.

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