By Jonnie Bevan
Ever since the formation of the EU in 1993 political opponents have contested the value of the union. Until recently, however, the United Kingdom’s membership has never truly been questioned; the rise of UKIP in the past five years has resulted in EU membership becoming a hot topic of debate. In the midst of this, statistics have, as usual, been thrown around erroneously by both sides, with numbers thrown casually around to support one case or another, despite little to back up any claims made. One example of this spin, which I will focus on in this article, is the attempt to pinpoint an exact figure defining how much influence the EU has over British law.
In April 2014, the party leaders of anti-EU UKIP and the pro-EU Liberal Democrats (Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg, respectively) met in a fiery debate over Britain’s membership of the European Union. Clegg claimed that just 7% of British law was influenced by Europe; Farage replied “…by saying 7% of our laws are made in Brussels, you are wilfully lying to the British people … and I am really shocked and surprised you would do that.” Farage then went on to claim that 75% of British law originated in Brussels.
Farage was right about one thing; Clegg’s statistic was misleading for the British people (whether wilfully or not is up for debate). However, Farage’s 75% claim was just as deceptive. There is virtually no possible way to put any sort of meaningful figure on the table.
Clegg’s figure came from a House of Commons research paper which was published in 2010; the report claims that 6.8% of primary legislation between 1997 and 2009 (such as the Data Protection Act 1998, which defines how personal data can be used) was deemed to be EU influenced. Clegg failed to mention that the study also found that 14.1% of secondary legislation (smaller additions to laws) also fell under the same category of EU influence. It is worth noting as well that secondary legislation makes up more of British law than primary legislation.
Farage’s 75% claim, on the other hand, was a statistic adapted from a German study from 2005, which claimed that 84% of German law had been influenced in some way by EU law. The lower figure for the UK accounts (seemingly arbitrarily) for the British reluctance to join the single currency.
There are too many subtleties and variations in definitions that make these kind of predictions harmful; to take every British law and decide whether or not it was influenced by the EU would be speculative at best, unfeasible, and practically impossible.
EU legislation is constantly changing – year to year, month to month, even day to day. New directives and regulations are put in place so regularly that numbers fluctuate almost constantly. A week is a long time in politics, as any proponent of gay marriage in the United States would tell you. By that logic, nine years (since the German study that Farage based his claim on) or even five years (since the House of Commons study that Clegg used) is an aeon. There’s no way of knowing whether the figures quoted are still relevant numbers in 2015, but it’s fairly likely that they aren’t.
Meanwhile, the number of EU influenced laws will differ from country to country – for instance, newer EU members will likely have more EU directed laws, as they are required to bring certain laws up to date more quickly than older members. Although Germany and the UK are fairly similar (as countries go), they are still different beasts, and should be treated as such. Different currency usage is one factor, definitely, but differing economies, cultures and trade patterns also play a large part. A law which regulates the steel industry has more relevance in Germany than in the UK, as the former produces steel at four times the rate of the UK.
This example demonstrates another problem which presents itself when evaluating laws: their saliency. Even just looking at the UK, are all laws “equal” or should there some sort of weighting system? A law that regulates the labelling of shoes in the EU has little impact on day-to-day life but the law that allows freedom of movement between EU member states affects almost everyone in one way or another. But how do we rank these laws? EU directives and regulations touch every subject possible, from the environment to economics to immigration to agriculture – evaluating and weighting every single one would be time-consuming and arbitrary at best.
Britain’s membership of the European Union is going to be thrown into sharp relief in the coming years; the new Conservative government has promised a referendum on the EU by 2017. The debate is about to step up, and both sides are will make claims which support their argument. Remember: not every claim will be totally honest.