How often does the EU overrule British ministers?

9 May 2014


"on 55 occasions British Ministers have said they will object to an EU directive, and on 55 occasions they have been over-ruled."

Nigel Farage, BBC Question Time, 8 May 2014

Ahead of the EU parliament elections taking place later this month, Nigel Farage pointed yesterday to the lack of influence Britain enjoys in the corridors of Brussels.

His figures come from analysis by campaign group Business for Britain on voting at the EU Council. While Nigel Farage's claim reflects their research, there's only so much it can tell us about the UK's success at votes: not all member states will vote in the same way as the position they've taken in informal discussions, and some decisions effectively take place elsewhere.

55 measures opposed by the UK; 55 defeats

Business for Britain recently analysed votes which took place at the Council of the EU since 1996. The Council is where national ministers from each EU country meet to decide on laws. The decisions they take must be unanimous in some cases (for instance foreign and security policy) or require a simple or qualified majority in others.

Business for Britain identified and listed - using publicly available sources and Freedom of Information Requests - 55 occasions in which the UK voted 'no' to a measure put before the Council and when the measure passed anyway because the UK was outvoted.

UK says no more often

Studies elsewhere have found that, since 2009, the UK is the most rebellious member state at the Council, although it still voted 'yes' 91% of the time. Similarly, from 1995 to 2010 the UK was the second most common 'no' voter behind Germany.

The House of Commons Library has discussed separately the evidence surrounding the UK's voting record and how it differs to other member states.

But votes don't tell the whole story

As Business for Britain concedes in its own report: "national governments usually try and stop proposals that they don't like from ever reaching the Council of the European Union".

In fact, some research has suggested that around 70% of decisions are actually taken in practice before they reach a council vote. The Permanent Representatives Committee (COREPER), for instance, is made up of civil servants from member states who take part in the decision-making process without formally voting.

Various commentators have argued that this has an effect on how member states behave. Some may, for instance, oppose a policy informally but vote in favour with the majority so as not to appear isolated. And others may never go to a vote because of significant opposition early on.

These 'informal' maneuverings obviously aren't as measurable as formal votes, so there are limits to what research can tell us about the UK's 'influence' at the EU Council.

With that in mind, simply pointing to 55 occasions in which the UK has been overruled by the rest of the Council doesn't necessarily reflect that the UK has no influence on the policies that come out. We should also be asking about the policies that don't ever make it to a vote.

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