It is Britain’s biggest and most contentious balance sheet – the cost and benefit analysis of membership of the European Union.
Arguments have raged about the pros and cons of being in the European club since the day we joined in 1973.
Now, in the wake of David Cameron’s keynote speech last Wednesday, these big figures will once again be tossed back and forth to prove Britain is either better off in, out – or somewhere in between.
Calculating the benefit is not easy. Is it more important that we export £159billion of goods to the rest of the EU, or that this is £44billion less than the EU exports to us?
Which matters more – the estimated £3billion cost to shoppers of EU farm subsidies, or the food security it buys in an uncertain world?
Is the chance of an East European taking your job in Britain more of a worry than your losing the chance to work in other EU countries?
Whatever your starting point, it is clear the answer to the question – in or out? – depends on two variables. The first is the deal Britain would get in a semi or entirely detached state.
Officially, British exports to the EU would face an average tariff of two per cent, though the charge on food would be much higher.
If we could negotiate access via some sort of free trade agreement, as Norway and Switzerland have done, the tariff would be waived. If not, devaluing sterling could lower the price of our goods, though this would be hard to pull off in today’s sophisticated capital markets.
The second variable is the future of the global economy. Is Europe in long-term decline and are we better off as a partner for the emerging giants, a trade hub – an Atlantic Hong Kong? Or is Europe capable of reinventing itself as an economic dynamo, just as it did after 1945?
Until these questions are answered, our balance sheet will be missing its last figure, whether plus or minus.