A dozen hospitals. A hundred million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, and a lot more of the Oxford one. Or even a few trips in one of Jeff Bezos’s new space rockets. Even with inflation, there is still plenty you can buy with an extra three to four billion pounds.
In recent days, it has emerged there is a big gulf between what the European Union insists we owe under the terms of our departure agreement, and what the UK believes is due.
In the EU’s accounts, it put the sum at £40.5 billion. The UK now says it will be £37.3 billion, or £3.2 billion less than the EU reckons.
Despite this discrepancy, the EU continues to insist the UK should pay that full sum of money. Yet surely for the vast amounts Britain is expected to hand over to Brussels over the next few years, we should at least demand an audit of its accounts – and a clawback for any mis-spending.
At the moment, there is no formal dispute – and the UK has been paying out. But surely it is time for the Treasury to get tougher?
It was always slightly odd that the UK was expected to carry on paying for EU programmes, and pensions for its officials, after our departure. After all, most clubs don’t carry on charging you after you have left.
It is even odder that the UK is subject to all kinds of extra charges that are now outside its control. In fact, two things should happen before any more money is paid over to Brussels.
First, the UK should demand the right to have the EU’s accounts audited. It is ridiculous that we are expected to pay for programmes for years to come without any right to check the books.
After all, it is not as if the accounts are always accurate. In 2019, for example, the latest year for which a full set of figures is available, the European Court of Auditors concluded the the accounts were, as it politely puts it, 'affected by too many errors'. It estimated that 'irregularities' accounted for 2.7 per cent of its spending, which amounts to €4.2 billion, (£3.6 billion). It is crazy that the UK could be asked to pay for ‘irregularities’.
At the very least, we should have the right to inspect and question the figures put out by the EU.
Next, there should be a clawback facility. It is hardly impossible that major frauds will be unveiled in the years to come. If so, the UK should surely be given a rebate from the remaining 27 member states.
The payments to the EU were agreed when the UK was hoping for amicable relations with the EU. We would have liked a broader trade agreement that included services, and financial services most of all. We would have liked the Northern Ireland protocol to be interpreted with a light touch, and for customs checks to be kept to a civilised minimum.
None of that has happened.
Of course, that is up to the EU. It isn't required to offer a former member any special favours. But at the same time, it can hardly expect to send the UK bills without any form of comeback. There is nothing left to lose by toughening our stance now.