I sent this letter to the editor of the Telegraph today.
The eurosceptic pressure group ‘Business for Britain’ has attempted to unpick the voting record of ‘the British’ in the European Parliament (How British MEPs are outvoted time and again in Brussels, 1 September). Sadly, their analysis is full of holes.
First there’s the statistical jiggery-pokery. To make the sums come out the way they want, they have to ignore the vast majority of issues which had the support of British MEPs, and concentrate on just 27% (the ‘no’ votes) as if that was somehow representative. This is obviously silly: it’s hardly surprising that we’re far more likely to be on the winning side when we’ve agreed with our neighbours a proposal that we can all support. In general, British interests tend to correspond with the interests of other voters around Europe — that’s the reason we have a European Parliament in the first place.
The eurosceptic group also has to pretend that every ‘no’ vote in Parliament is, as the Telegraph calls it, a “bid to block legislation”. Of course, when an MEP votes no, he or she is just as likely to be rejecting a damaging amendment to a good law as throwing out a bad law.
But setting aside the stats, this whole argument blithely overlooks a very important point. In the European Parliament, just as in Westminster, MEPs organise themselves along political lines, not country by country. The ‘British bloc’ conjured up by this story simply doesn’t exist. To use Labour MEPs as an example, why on earth would we side with UKIP when it comes to European laws? We have far more in common with our centre-left friends in Sweden, France and Poland, for example, than we have with right-wing obstructionists from our own country. Despite what our right-wing media frequently tries to pretend, the debate about what kind of Europe we want is a political debate, not a nationalistic one.
Indeed, in its attempt to portray some kind of grand nationalistic showdown, this study lumps together Labour and the other mainstream parties with UKIP, counts votes and feigns horror at the result. But this is mad. Of course UKIP are always on the wrong side of the votes. It’s pretty much the reason they get up in the morning. Take them out of the equation and the story is very different. So don’t tar us all with the same brush, please.
As a representative of one of the mainstream parties in the European Parliament, I’ll be the first to admit that we don’t always win votes, and even when we do, we don’t always get things right. But frankly, if you want more effective British MEPs, the single best thing you can do is stop electing UKIP.
Labour MEP for Yorkshire & Humber
Articles like the Telegraph’s (aped, predictably, by the Mail and the Express, and more disappointingly by the Scotsman and a handful of regional papers) exemplify a common pattern in British media coverage of European issues. The correspondent picks up a press release from a eurosceptic pressure group and reproduces its content without bothering to check whether it corresponds to reality.
In some cases it may be due to time or space pressures, but all too often — as I suspect happened in this case — it’s either unwitting or deliberate bias confirmation. Traditional journalistic principles (do your research, check your facts, get opposing quotes, investigate both sides of the story) sadly get forgotten in the rush to reinforce your newspaper’s political standpoint.
Update: British Influence’s research director, Nick Kent, elaborates some similar points as well as questioning other aspects of the research’s methodology in an excellent blog piece.