Britain’s EU membership is worth the multibillion-pound fee, and it is right for smaller countries with weaker economies to get more of the pot, David Cameron has said.
Speaking to workers at the Caterpillar plant in Peterborough, the prime minister said, of the £13bn Britain paid to the EU in 2015, the UK paid more in than it had got back, and the reverse was true in other nations. “We do pay in more than we get out,” he said. “We benefit, though, from the single market, making our economy bigger, creating jobs and more tax revenue. We get back much more overall than we put in. I think our membership fee is worthwhile.”
Cameron said he believed it was in Britain’s interest for smaller economies in the bloc to get more than they put in. “I don’t actually think that’s a bad thing,” he said. “Look at our continent, and remember how recently it was that Balkan countries were fighting each other. Remember how poor those countries were behind the iron curtain after decades of communism.”
A single market, Cameron said, was not just about Britain profiting but “one where we have agreed to help each other, and help poorer countries raise their living standards”. He said: “I would argue that is good for them but also good for us to create a new middle-class of customers in Poland or the Czech Republic or Slovakia, and see their housing sector grow – they are going to buy more Caterpillars.”
It is workers in places like Peterborough, the second most Eurosceptic town in the country, according to YouGov, whom Cameron must win over with his message on jobs and the economy. But many of the employees at the Q&A at Caterpillar, a company which has said it backs the remain campaign, spoke to Cameron with deep scepticism about staying in the EU, with questions more firmly focused on immigration and Britain’s sovereignty.
One employee told Cameron he had taken his child to A&E, and said that after an hour’s wait, a nurse had begged people to leave if they could. “Half the people in that waiting room were not from this country. If we stay part of the EU, how will you control immigration?” the employee said, to loud applause.
“We don’t benefit from uncontrolled immigration, we want to know we have control,” Cameron said, saying more could be done to cut non-EU migration and citing the restrictions on welfare, tax credits and housing for EU citizens.
“You have to pay into the system before you can get out of the system. I do accept that we need to make sure as a country that we continue to put money into our health service, into our schools to make sure they are there for hardworking people who pay their taxes and work hard like you.”
Another employee said politicians in Brussels were unaccountable to voters, to which Cameron said: “The EU is accountable to the 28 prime ministers. It’s wrong to think we don’t ever get our way in Europe; we do. The single market of 500 million people that we can sell our goods and services to: that was a British idea. I don’t accept that it’s not accountable.”
Before the Q&A, Cameron unveiled two new posters by the Britain Stronger In Europe campaign, alongside Brendan Barber, former general secretary of the TUC and now chair of conciliation service Acas. One poster lists hundreds of organisations, individuals and institutions backing remain, with a large magnifying glass on the poster representing the leave campaign, with the phrase: “we’ll get back to you”.
Cameron and Barber, who are unlikely political allies, made their first appearance together after publishing a joint article in the Guardian saying leaving the EU would pose a “triple threat” to employment, pay packets and the cost of living.
The joint call came in the immediate aftermath of a series of government concessions on the trade union bill. The proposed changes could have had a disastrous financial impact on union funding, by preventing them from automatically deducting membership fees directly from workers’ pay.
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