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This video on YouTube of Margaret Thatcher at the EU Dublin Council on the 29th of November 1979 seems to suggest that the UK was the second biggest net contributor to the EU and also the third poorest member of the EU:

t = 1 min 11 s

I must say the other very big net contributors are Germany […] It's we and Germany who are big net contributors, and next year we would be the biggest of the lot, although one of the three poorest members.

Have I misunderstood something, or was the UK actually one of the three poorest members of the EU in 1979? Or was it not actually the (second) biggest net contributor?

  • Presumably GDP per capita and it will depend on which data you use. Wikipedia suggests the UK was behind Luxembourg, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, West Germany and France, but ahead of Italy and Ireland. This seems plausible – Henry Sep 19 at 1:54
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    @Henry that sounds like an answer. Furthermore, if contributions are proportional to GDP rather than per capita GDP then it would not be particularly surprising for a country with a relatively large population to be in this position. – phoog Sep 19 at 2:00
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    The UK only joined the EU in the 70s because of the fact that country was in fairly dire economic straits and was in fact nicknamed, "The sick man of Europe." Given that the UK economy didn't properly recover until the 80s, this seems entirely plausible. – GeoffAtkins Sep 20 at 6:48
  • By GDP per capita, yes, it was. The only two members of the EU in 1978 and 1979 that had a lower GDP per capita than that of the United Kingdom were Italy and Ireland. Cyprus, Greece, Portugal, Spain, and several other nations had yet to join the EU at time this statement was made. – David Hammen Sep 20 at 9:29
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Both parts of the claim are correct (if you define 'poor' as having a low GDP per capita).

As pointed out in other answers and in the comments, the UK had the third lowest GDP per capita out of the EU-9 in 1979 -- more than Italy and Ireland but less than Luxembourg, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, France and West Germany. Here's a table

According to historic tables of EU revenues and expenditures, they were also the second highest net contributor to the budget in 1979. According to the table on page 94 of the linked report, the UK made a net contribution (total revenue minus total expenditure) of 1485.6 million ECU (European Currency Units; a unit of accounting) while West Germany paid a net of 1491.7 million ECU. Each of the other 7 member states made lower net contributions than the UK.

Even adjusting for population the UK would have been one of the highest net contributors at the time. Four of the nine member states in 1979 were net recipients. France made net contributions of just 79 million ECU (5% of the UK's) although its population closely matched that of the UK in 1979 (55 and 56 million, respectively).

The imbalance was considered so stark that the UK eventually managed to negotiate a significant and permanent rebate on its contributions to the EU budget.

The independent House of Commons Library (a research body for the UK parliament) has produced a number of reports on the topic in the context of Brexit. On the rebate, it says:

The rebate was introduced to address the issue of the UK making relatively larger net contributions than other Member States. When the rebate was introduced, in 1985, the UK received relatively little from the EU budget: it had a small agricultural sector, but most EU spending went on agriculture. At the same time the UK made relatively high contributions to the budget, despite being among the less well-off Member States at the time.

The European Parliament Research Service has an even more in-depth briefing on the imbalances in contributions and the origins of the UK's rebate:

The question of the UK's budgetary imbalances has been a source of debate and friction since the country joined the then-European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973. It was also one of the main topics under the spotlight during the June 1975 referendum, when UK voters supported continued EEC membership.

The historical context helps to understand the issue, which relates to a number of features of the UK economy and the EEC's finances in the 1970s and 1980s. On the one hand, the UK had a small agricultural sector, whereas most Community spending went on agriculture (some 70% in 1984- 1985).

On the other hand, the system of financing of the Community budget, which was then being implemented progressively, had as its main source of revenue an own resource related to Member States' VAT bases, alongside customs duties. In the UK, the VAT base in comparison with gross national product (GNP) was proportionally higher than in other Member States.

In addition, the UK was more open than other Member States to trade with non-EEC countries.

The combined effect of all these factors was a structurally negative budgetary balance for the UK, which at the time was among the less well-off Member States, with a per capita income lower than the EEC average.

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  • Fascinating, thank you! – angrydust Sep 23 at 11:37
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Was the UK actually one of the three poorest members of the EU in 1979?

Context is important. The members of the EU in 1979 were the original six members that formed the EU in 1952 (Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands) plus three other countries that were acceded into the EU in 1973 (Denmark, Ireland, and the United Kingdom). While Greece, Portugal, and Spain had applied for membership before 1979, they were not acceded into the EU until 1981 (Greece) and 1986 (Portugal and Spain).

Those three nations (Greece, Portugal, and Spain), plus several other nations that have joined the EU since then, had a lower GDP per capita than did the United Kingdom at the time the referenced statement was made. Those poorer European countries that are now a part of the European Union were not yet a part of the European Union at the time that statement was made.

Based on 1978 numbers (the statement was made in 1979), the United Kingdom was the third poorest of those nine member nations of the European Union at time that statement was made, in terms of GDP per capita.

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  • Okay, that makes sense, but now I want to know what the net contribution per capita was for each of those nations, because some of them have much lower populations than the UK. It's a bit disingenuous to say you are the third poorest per capita yet the (second) biggest net total contributor. – angrydust Sep 20 at 19:04
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    @angrydust - You didn't ask that in the original (or current) version of the question. Besides, it's best to ask one question at a time. – David Hammen Sep 20 at 19:11
  • Okay, I admit that was unclear. I don't mean to ask: "Was the UK the third poorest member of the EU in 1979?", but rather: "Was the UK the third poorest member of the EU and also the second biggest net contributor in 1979?". I have edited the question to clarify this. – angrydust Sep 20 at 19:15
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    @angrydust - That kind of edit is bad form. – David Hammen Sep 20 at 19:19
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    @angrydust - I did answer your original question. Rather than edit your original question to ask yet another question, you should ask that other question as a separate question. It's how sites across the StackExchange network tend to work: Ask only one question at a time, and do not change what your original question asks for unless clarification is requested. – David Hammen Sep 21 at 22:26

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