The eurosceptic narrative

A lot of eurosceptic arguments flow from a basic narrative which goes something like this:

“75% of our laws are imposed on us by an unelected giant bureaucracy in Brussels, stifling our businesses in red tape and costing us billions of pounds a day. We thought we were joining a free trade area, but it has transformed into a political union without anybody ever having a say.”

Not a single element of that narrative is true, but it’s repeated ad nauseam in the eurosceptic parts of our media and by so many Conservative and UKIP politicians that it’s almost taken as read.

It was Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels who said that, if you tell a big enough lie often enough, the people will believe it. Is he about to be proved right — or can facts defeat myths? Can debate overcome prejudice? The Clegg-Farage debates didn’t augur well!

For the record and for the umpteenth time, here is that narrative deconstructed, point by point.

  • “75% of our laws”: The House of Commons library, which is independent of political influence, published a detailed analysis of this claim in which they concluded that the real figure was just 6.8% of laws and 14.1% of statutory instruments. And these figures include everything that even mentions the EU, “from passing reference to explicit implementation”.
  • “imposed on us”: The European Commission only proposes. It’s our own elected governments and directly elected MEPs who decide on European laws.
  • “unelected”: The EU’s Council of Ministers consists of national governments, the European Parliament consists of directly-elected MEPs, and the European Commission consists of nominees proposed by national governments and approved by the European Parliament. Parliament elects the Commission’s president.
  • “giant bureaucracy”: The European Commission has fewer employees than Leeds City Council.
  • “red tape”: Europe-wide rules are mostly common rules for the common market. They exist to simplify, replacing 28 divergent sets of national rules with one common one, thereby cutting red tape for industry and for consumers.
  • “costing us billions of pounds a day”: British industry (CBI) reckons that our membership of the EU benefits every family in the country to the tune of £3000 per year [the link is to a Financial Times report for which free registration is required]. Eurosceptics quote only what we pay into the EU’s own budget, most of which we get back anyway, and keep quiet about the far greater economic benefits, not to mention the intangible ones.
  • “we thought we were joining a free trade area”: No. We actually left the European Free Trade Association to join, specifically because we wanted more than just trade — as was made clear at the time by both Labour and Conservative governments, and by the media.
  • “never had a say”: this implies, perversely, that the only way to have a say in politics is through a referendum — in which case nobody has ever had a say on anything much! In fact, Europe has been a hotly-debated issue in many general elections, and on top of that there are specific European elections every five years. Parties seeking UK exit from the EU have never gained more than 20% of the seats.
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    • It’s true that the figures are banded about so widely that they easily get repeated by politicians and journalists repeating each other, rather than relying on proper studies like that of the House of Commons library.

      Also, sometimes the figure is mixed up with the figure of (about) 70% of EU legislation that is decided by the European Parliament under the codecision procedure. It’s relatively easy to slip from MEPs saying “70% of our legislation [meaning “EU legislation”] is decided by the European Parliament” to “70% of our legislation [meaning “national legislation”] is decided by the European Parliament”. On one occasion, Farage made that ‘slip’ quite deliberately.

      • Reding’s statement in the video is in response to a question unequivocally referring to legislation in Member States, as her answer appears to be. UKIP are now using this is as proof that Nick was lying in the debate:
        Don’t you think she should be vigorously encouraged to retract what is difficult to see as other than a deliberate slip, to use your words, in order to make the European legislative process come over as more important than it is?

  1. While I like this and enjoy taking apart the shallow but calculated stupidity of Ukip, playing with semantics and half truths is playing into their hands.

    With that in mind, the Giant Bureaucracy deconstruction is slightly disingenuous – The Commission may well employ fewer people than Leeds City Council, but the criticism is never restricted to the Commission; rather it always refers to the Union as a whole, and the number of people employed by the Parliament, the Commission, and the ECJ alone must be astronomical.

    Not to mention the Court of Auditors, the ECB, the Council of Ministers, the Council… Any more?

    Don’t try to play the little games that Ukip plays. Those on the wrong side of the argument can only use lies, mistruths and obfuscation to get their points across; those on the right side are bound by the truth. Don’t stray across the line.

    • I can’t speak for the original author, but the claim I keep seeing is quite specific: that the European Commission makes EU laws, and this is bad because the Commission is made up of unelected bureaucrats.

      The correct response is that the Commission (a) doesn’t actually make laws, (b) is chosen by elected governments and overseen by elected MEPs, and (c) is very small, so it couldn’t do the job UKIP wants to pretend it does, even if it tried.

      That response doesn’t seem to play with half-truths or semantics to me. It seems spot on.

      Of course the other EU institutions employ lots of people, but I don’t recall ever seeing UKIP complaining about them deciding on new laws. (Which is ironic, since EU laws are REALLY made by MEPs and national governments.)

      • As a follow-up, I suppose the other institution often implicated in making new EU laws is the ECJ, which of course doesn’t do that either. (And I would guess its staff is pretty small too.)

      • The criticism I often read isn’t always that specific.

        When talking about laws, yes it is; when talking more generally about the wastefulness of the EU, it isn’t.

        You can bet your backside that they will mix the two up so that if you only answer one of them, you hand them a “lefties trying to hide the truth” card. So don’t play their little games and answer both. 🙂

        • There are certainly some eurosceptic claims about the EU’s inefficiency, but they are unconnected with the subject of this post, which is about how EU laws are made, who makes them and what impact they have.

          If people mix up different issues, then the best one can do in response is to try and distinguish them clearly. Surely the fact that this post focuses on a single issue, rather than trying to address every single accusation, doesn’t constitute “playing little games”?

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