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What proportion of UK law comes from the EU?

by Sam Ashworth-Hayes | 01.03.2016

Pick a number between 13 and 62. The Remain camp typically picks a low number; the Leave camp shoots high.

This is where asking what proportion of UK law comes from the EU inevitably ends up. But no answer is meaningful.

Europe on vellum

Not every EU law requires an addition to the UK’s vast collection of vellum scrolls. EU regulations, for instance, apply across all member states but are usually implemented in the UK without new legislation — for example, by changing administrative rules.

Sometimes, however, Parliament must earn its keep and pass a new law. This can mean primary legislation in the form of full blown Acts of Parliament, but usually it means secondary legislation –  Statutory Instruments (SIs).

Crunching the numbers

Parliament passed 945 Acts between 1993 and 2014, of which 231 implemented EU obligations of some sort, according the House of Commons Library. Over the same period, it passed 33,160 SIs, 4,283 of which implemented EU obligations. Add both of these together and divide by the total number of laws passed, and you get the 13% figure.

However, that figure ignores the fact that most EU regulations don’t require new UK laws. If you count all EU regulations, EU-related Acts of Parliament, and EU-related SIs, about 62% of laws introduced between 1993 and 2014 that apply in the UK implemented EU obligations.

But there’s a problem with this 62% figure, too. It treats all EU regulations as part of the UK’s body of laws when they may not actually apply. The UK has opted out of the Schengen area, but the regulations governing it are still counted in this figure. Other regulations simply do not have any real impact on Britain. EU regulations on tobacco growing, for instance, are unlikely to be particularly burdensome, as the government “understands that there is little or no commercial tobacco grown in the UK”.

It’s also worth considering the longevity of laws. Many EU regulations are short-term in nature; each working day brings a new regulation on fruit and vegetable imports into the single market. These are all counted in the 62% figure, despite their short period of application.

Numbers without meaning

Early attempts to give the proportion of UK law originating in Brussels faced difficulties. Lacking electronic databases, the Commons Library resorted to comparing the shelf-space taken up by the two collections.

While the 13% and 62% figures are an improvement, they give too wide a range to be useful. This is a blessing in disguise, as it reduces the temptation to focus on a single figure when there may not be much point in using any figure at all.

Both the 13% and 62% figures count each law as one more on the pile. But not all laws are created equal. As the Commons Library drily observed, “the ‘working time directive’ is arguably of far greater significance… than, for example, the Commission Regulation on “the classification of padded waistcoats in the Combined Nomenclature”.

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Another weakness in both figures is that they count any law, even if brings in home-grown ideas as well as EU obligations. Only 18 of the 945 Acts, for example, were exclusively concerned with EU matters.

Moreover, looking at laws implementing EU obligations doesn’t capture the effect of existing EU law on constraining lawmakers, or the impact of advice the EU offers the UK, or of the UK introducing EU rules that simply codify existing UK law at a European level. It also doesn’t show whether the UK voted against or in favour of a measure. Considering we get our way 87% of the time, that’s quite an oversight.

The proportion of UK laws influenced by Brussels isn’t a good measure of the EU’s influence on British life.

Edited by Hugo Dixon