We're constantly being told that £350 million a week, or £50 million a day, is a misleading claim for what our European Union membership fee is - because we get some money back from it.
Imagine that you were a member of a tennis club, at a cost of £350 per year.
As membership benefits, you'd be offered 4 hours' free court bookings - which they normally charge £10 an hour for. In the shop they sell their favoured brand of tennis racket, for £100. Because you're a member of the club, you have to buy that tennis racket. They 'give you' a £50 allowance towards it, and expect you to 'match-fund' it with £50 of your own.
The club tells you that you get £90 of benefits from being a member. They also offer you cashback. The amount of cashback varies from year to year but this year it's £85. It goes down if you take advantage of any of the club's special offers.
For example, if you buy a tube of their brand of tennis balls it's normally £6. You wouldn't even have needed a new tube of balls yet, but the club's courts are designed in a way that wears them out quicker. You have to write a letter to the club to request the special offer and post it with a first-class stamp, explaining why you need the tennis balls. You pay £3, they pay £3, but then they take £2 off your cashback next year. They insist till they're blue in the face that you're getting £3 of 'tennis club funding' for the new tennis balls. In fact, you're paying £3, you're losing £2 of cashback, it costs you 62p for the stamp, a few pence for the envelope, paper and ink in your printer - so you're not totally sure whether you're actually paying more or less than £6 in total. The tennis balls arrive, two weeks after you wanted them, with a sticker on the can saying "These tennis balls were part-financed by the club. The club is amazing."
How much does it cost to be a member of the club? Is it £350? Is it £400 because you had to spend another £50 to get a club-approved racket? Is it £265 because that's what you get after cashback (even though the club is always trying to negotiate that cashback down, and you can't guarantee what the amount will be next year)?
The club advertises the membership fee as £172. They say that you get £90 in membership benefits (racket and court time), £85 in cashback, and £3 for the tennis balls. But of course you couldn't join the club for £172.
The £6 for the tube of tennis balls is pretty much the story we were being told during the floods. The EU made it harder for us to dredge our rivers, and subsidised farmers to cut down the vegetation that keeps water in the water table. That made us more susceptible to flooding. When flooding finally happened, everyone said "Why not apply for EU cash?" - but of course, you have to match-fund most EU cash from your national budget. And then, whatever you receive, two-thirds is taken back off the following year's rebate. Once application fees are taken into consideration it would make more sense to do it straight away.
It's the same with the steel industry; EU policies and paralysis meant we couldn't cope with Chinese dumping of steel on our markets. Rather than follow the US lead and adding large tariffs (266% in the US case) the EU argued for many months over insufficient tariffs of 9% to 15%. When SSI in Redcar closed, Labour MEPs and MPs queued up to demand that we apply for EU funding through the EU's Globalisation Adjustment Fund. Again there'd be an application cost, we'd lose two-thirds from our rebate, we'd have to match-fund, and the cheque would have arrived too late to make any actual difference. The amount of money we could have applied for would have been about £6 million (of which we'd lose 4). £2 million is roughly the cost of 56 minutes of EU membership (and that's before considering application fees). Yet this fund was trumpeted as an argument for staying in the EU.
Back to the tennis club. All members of the club are required to observe the rules of the club. One of the club rules is that only the club can decide who you're allowed to practice with outside the club. You're not allowed to negotiate your own training, even with someone who was a friend of yours before you even joined the club. The club has a 'Training Commissioner' who decides who you can train with and how.
The club operates a serve-and-volley style. You're expected to learn to play like that, because that's how the dominant style was when the club was set up in the 1950s. No matter that in the tennis world, other styles have become prevalent. The rules were set up in the 1950s, and can't be changed unless every single member of the club agrees.
The club meets on two sites, at opposite ends of the city. For three weeks a month, you're at their main site. But the other week, the club transports everything it owns from one site to the other, where they have very similar facilities. One of the club's members lives close to the second site, and demands that the club continue this arrangement for his personal benefit. The club has 28 members, but only 27 of them will agree to stay at the main site. One refuses. The club could have sold one site and used it to cut the membership fees, but that's not going to happen.
You're told that if you leave the club, the other members will hate you. And 44% of the time that you play tennis, you play with other members of the club. You play with non-members 56% of the time. Most of the rest of the club are more insular; they play amongst themselves the vast majority of the time.
Some local non-members have to pay a smaller fee to be allowed to use the club's facilities. These non-members are perfectly happy being outside the club, even though they've negotiated bad deals with the club. You could negotiate a much better deal. You're a better tennis player; you're the fifth-best player in the whole league and you buy a lot of stuff from the club; the club wouldn't want to lose your business. They can't understand why you'd want to stay as a member of the club. Local non-members tell you it's much better outside the club. But the no.1 tennis player in the league, who isn't in the club and is from a town many miles away, tells you that you have to stay in the club, because that way you can influence the club's rules (and keep him as the no.1 player).
When you play tennis with non-members, you still have to obey the rules of your club. You still have to use their racket and their balls, and you must still play serve-and-volley. If you're caught doing anything different, the club will fine you. Your game isn't very well suited to serve-and-volley, but it's going to take you a little while to learn a new style. Everyone's telling you that your results might dip for a few months as you learn a new style if you leave the club. You've been in the club for many years; you can barely remember what life was like outside the club. People are trying to frighten you.
It's scary, it's a step into the unknown. But if you remain a member of the club, it could potentially be another 41 years before you get another chance to leave.
If the EU were a tennis club, I might very well conclude that it's a racket.