3 million jobs lost over 'Brexit'? Concern over recycled claim

15 July 2013


Would three million Britons end up on the dole if Britain pulled out of the European Union?

Readers would be forgiven for believing so after an article on the pro-Europeans in the Cabinet appeared today in the Guardian. In the article Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander is quoted as saying:

"Membership of the EU gives market access to British firms, makes us more attractive to overseas investors and underpins more than 3m British jobs."

This is by no means the first time we see this claim, and when we first factchecked it two years ago we found it to be problematic at best.

The claim has been doing the rounds for over a decade, when South Bank University and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) respectively reported in 2000 that around 3.5 million jobs depend on exports to the EU and - in NIESR's report - that "up to 3.2 million are associated directly with exports of goods and services to other EU countries."*

However, these estimates refer to jobs associated with exports to the EU (including those indirectly linked to exporters), and not those that relied on EU membership. As NIESR explicitly aknowledged in its report, "there is no a priori reason to suppose that many of these [jobs], if any, would be lost permanently if Britain were to leave the EU."

The point is that the three million figure doesn't tell us anything about the number of jobs linked to British membership of the EU as an institution, only about those linked to the EU as an export market. What would happen to that market in the event of a British exit is a matter of speculation.

This is no small distinction to make and, with a referendum in the horizon, it's only fair that the public are supplied with the correct information to inform their vote.

Unfortunately certain politicians have made a habit of conflating the two, with Danny Alexander following in the footsteps of Nick Clegg and Ed Balls on this matter.

We are concerned this number has acquired a life of its own and are therefore writing to those concerned to ask that greater care is used in the future to avoid misunderstanding about this figure.

*Jonathan Portes, Director of Niesr, described this research as "past [its] sell-by date." (18/09/2013)

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