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Britain is influential, not ignored

by Jack Schickler | 20.04.2016

Is Britain really the “most ignored country” in the EU, as the Daily Express claimed today?

It would be worrying if true. After all, our ability to influence EU law is often cited as one of the major advantages of EU membership. Fortunately, the Express is wrong. The UK is one of the most successful countries in getting what it wants out of the EU – a finding not changed by the VoteWatch Europe study they cite.

VoteWatch look at voting records in the two bodies which thrash out EU laws, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. In the Council – where national ministers sit – the UK is indeed the most frequently outvoted. But voting records do not give the whole story, as votes only come after a long period of haggling and amendment.  As Sara Hagemann, one of the study’s authors, puts it, “what is important is also what happens behind the scenes and the government’s influence when shaping and drafting policies”.

The UK is good at that. Separate research by Simon Hix, one of the study’s other authors, compared what each country wants from a negotiation with what actually happens on the issues that matter most to them. On this measure, the UK is the second most successful country in the EU. Figures published by Hix and Hagemann show that, since 1999, the UK has voted “No” on 56 occasions, abstained on 70, and voted ‘Yes’ 2,466 times. According to Hagemann, updating the data until the end of March 2016 brings the figures to 57 ‘No’, 2474 ‘Yes’, and 70 abstentions. 

Looking at the directly elected European Parliament, UK representatives – as in the Council – are the most frequently outvoted, in this case 29% of the time. But, again, what really matters is shaping the consensus put to the vote. Look at positions of influence – such as who writes reports which determine the parliament’s position on new laws – and you find that UK MEPs authored more than those from any other country except Germany.

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Responding to the report, eurosceptic MP Jacob Rees-Mogg told the Express: “the UK consistently loses in the EU because other member countries favour a highly regulated and protectionist economy”. But there is little evidence for this in the study. Rees-Mogg’s theory would imply that we we most often outvoted in areas such as trade and internal market red tape. But these are actually among the areas where we do best in the Council. France, with its Napoleonic Code and supposedly dirigiste approach, was our ally more often than Germany.

Jacob Rees-Mogg and the Daily Express declined our request for comment. The end of paragraph 4 of this article was updated on 19 May to reflect more recent data.

Edited by Michael Prest