EU facts behind the claims: UK influence
“The lack of influence is quite marked. Over the past twenty years… there have been 72 occasions in the Council of Ministers where the United Kingdom has opposed a particular measure. Of those 72 occasions, we have been successful precisely 0 times and we have lost 72 times. That is a fact.” (Leave)
“It is very hard to find an EU regulation of significance that has been forced on an unwilling British minister who voted against it” (Remain)
It seems that both sides are stretching what the evidence might allow us to say.
The British government has voted against EU laws 2% of the time since 1999
Official EU voting records* show that the British government has voted ‘No’ to laws passed at EU level on 56 occasions, abstained 70 times, and voted ‘Yes’ 2,466 times since 1999, according to UK in a Changing Europe Fellows Sara Hagemann and Simon Hix.
In other words, UK ministers were on the “winning side” 95% of the time, abstained 3% of the time, and were on the losing side 2%.
This is counting votes in the EU Council of Ministers, which passes most EU laws jointly with the European Parliament.
Where government ministers pass laws, generally agreed with the European Parliament. Entirely different from the "European Council" of government leaders, and from the "Council of Europe" which is not part of the EU at all.
The Vote Leave campaign has counted another 16 votes between 1996 and 1998 where it says the UK was on the losing side, to bring its total up to 72. We haven’t been able to check this figure but the general picture won’t change much whether the number is 56 or 72.
The bigger point is that the number of times the UK government “lost” doesn’t give us a full idea of what has happened.
Votes are only the tip of the iceberg
First, EU laws pass through several stages of negotiations in the Council and the European Parliament.
So the UK government’s ability to influence policies doesn’t only occur through voting—which is a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’ situation—but also in negotiations over the actual text of a draft law.
Many accounts have shown that the UK diplomatic service has—at least historically—been very skilled in such negotiations over important laws.
Second, the records only relate to votes on proposed laws that eventually pass.
So we simply do not know how often the UK successfully opposed proposals, or failed to get things it wanted, as these are not mentioned in the official figures.
The UK has been in a losing minority more often over the past few years
In recent years the UK has been more often on the losing side of these votes.
Research by Dr Hagemann and Professor Hix shows that between 2009 and 2015 the UK voted against the majority 12.3% of the time, compared to 2.6% of the time between 2004 and 2009.
That made it the country most likely to be on the losing side during the later period—the closest competitors were Germany and Austria, which were on the losing side 5.4% of the time.
This doesn’t tell us about how important the decisions were, though. The UK might have been on the winning side on all the issues it really cared about.
Ministers aren’t the only British decision-makers in the EU
The UK is represented in the EU both by ministers in the Council and British Members of the directly elected European Parliament (MEPs).
It is relatively common for a UK government minister to vote ‘no’ to a measure that many British MEPs support.
In fact, on several occasions a minister has voted ‘No’ to a measure supported by a majority of British MEPs, including those from the minister’s own party.
And on some occasions the UK government might oppose an EU law which is supported by the administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast.
Any defeats may have “significance” to somebody
As for the claim by Remain campaigners that significant UK defeats are hard to find, it is impossible to know what an “EU regulation of significance” is.
Different people find different kinds of law significant. Whether a particular vote is “significant” is a matter of judgement.
The 2003 regulation on genetically modified food was probably hugely significant for some farmers and consumers, but not necessarily the average voter.
Equally, when the UK is outvoted on budgetary matters, as it was several times in this period, one could argue that this has implications for all EU taxpayers, but would affect how much each UK taxpayer paid into the EU budget only slightly.
In fact, it is probably difficult to find any proposal on which a UK government minister was outvoted that was not significant for one group of UK citizens for some reason or another.
On the other hand, there will have been numerous occasions where the government supported rules that were disliked by some of its citizens.
In sum, it is correct that UK government ministers have sometimes been outvoted over EU laws, and the UK government has clearly voted ‘No’ on some issues that some sections of the British population think are important.
In terms of the total volume of laws passed, the proportion of times the UK government has been on the “losing side” is small at about 2% since 1999. In recent years the UK has been losing a lot more votes, and now loses a higher proportion of votes than other members.
*Sara Hagemann (2016) ‘Government decision records from the Council of the European Union 1999-2016, dataset v. March 2016’, London School of Economics and Political Science.