Does “Brussels” dictate our laws? The theory and practise of “Delors’ myth”

When talking about the EU, politicians often use the same numbers to back their opposing arguments. One would expect that if a fact is being used by both opponents in the discussion, then it must be true; even fact-checkers would treat this assumption as quite strong. However, quite surprisingly, some of these claims do not stand up to deeper scrutiny. One such incorrect yet frequently repeated statement that has spread around Europe is “Delors’ myth”, which refers to the high proportion of national legislation coming from “Brussels”.

Foto: CreativeCommons/ EuropeanParliament


If you listened to politicians before the May EP election – whether MEP candidates or top politicians from the member states – you would hear that the European Union “dictates” 70, 75, “up to 80,” or even 85 per cent of laws that we pass on the national level. Exact formulations and stated sources vary, but not the confidence with which politicians use this statement to support their argumentation.

Delors’ Myth

The original author of the quote about laws from the European Union influencing national legislation is in fact Jacques Delors, former European Commission president. In an 1988 speech to the European Parliament, he predicted that “in ten years, 80 per cent of the legislation related to economics, maybe also to taxes and social affairs, will be of Community origin”. Before anyone managed to verify how precise this forecast was, it became popular, almost folklore. It gained momentum when, only few years later, the Maastricht Treaty was challenged in Germany before the German Constitutional Court. At that point, the prophecy turned into a diagnosis of the actual situation.

The question became a part of public debate in 2004, when the Secretary of State for European Affairs, Atzo Nicolai, said that 60 per cent of all laws and regulations in effect in the Netherlands have their origin in Brussels. Since then, research has been conducted in various countries showing significantly lower numbers: from 15.5 per cent in the United Kingdom, 14 per cent in Denmark, 10.6 per cent in Austria, 3 to 27 per cent in France and 1 to 24 per cent in Finland, up to 39.1 per cent in Germany. The House of Commons in the UK released a briefing paper according to which any number between 15 and 50 per cent can be justified and backed up by data. Pilot research by the Asser Institute in the Netherlands focused on specific areas of law, finding 6 per cent in education and up to 66 per cent in environment protection.

The studies differ in the areas of legislation they cover, as well as in the conditions defining the European origin of laws. Annette Elisabeth Toeller of LSE, who focuses on the Europeanisation of law (the influence and connection between legislation at the national and European levels), warns that studies investigating this question are often motivated not simply by an attempt to rationalise the debate, but rather to verify or check how much the EU affects domestic politics. “Hardly surprisingly, the more encompassing the measurement, the higher the share of Europeanised legislation that it finds,” she says.

Andrew Moravcsik, Princeton professor of politics and EU specialist, mentions the Delors myth in his work on the democracy deficit in the Union. He questions the high percentages and points out that EU influence is minimal in areas such as social welfare provision, health care, pensions, active cultural policy, education, law and order, family policy and infrastructure provision. Furthermore, there is no increasing trend in its influence.

In May 2014, Yves Bertoncini, director of the Jacques Delors Institute, wrote that the statement according to which “80 per cent of laws come from Brussels” is a myth maintained for technical and political reasons. Like Moravcsik, he suggests that EU influence varies strongly among policy fields: “The Europeanisation of national laws is high in some sectors (agriculture, financial services, the environment, etc.) and very limited in others (education, social protection, housing, security, etc.).”

In Slovakia, according to Zuzana Gabrižová of euractiv.sk, in 2013 there were 137 laws passed in the National Parliament, 35 of which were explicitly passed because of a binding act by the EU. The number of laws concerning EU legislation, directly taking EU laws into account, was 61, or 44.5 per cent. This does not, however, include directly applicable regulations and directives transposing European legislation, which are not to be approved by the national parliament as they are directly effective. However, they have less clear linkage to any EU legal source and thus are more difficult to establish.

From all sides

It is not only the prevalence of this myth that catches the eye of the observer, but also the spectrum of politicians who use it in their argumentation. The statement gained a lot of attention when it was used by Nigel Farage, chairman of the UK Independence Party, which won the last EP election in the UK. Even Viviane Redding, European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, used the figure of 70 per cent when talking about the UK. Jean-Marie Le Pen mentioned 80 per cent of laws originating in Brussels, but so did the current EP president, Martin Schulz. In Slovakia, the claim was used by Richard Sulík, the successful candidate of a party that focused on fighting against EU bureaucracy in the election campaign, but also by Pavol Frešo, chairman of a party belonging to the EPP fraction in the European Parliament. In the Czech Republic, the factoid was used by ODS chairman Petr Fiala.

Both camps use this bold claim, which is not evidence-based, to illustrate the significance of the European Union and evaluate this situation from their own point of view. MEPs from previous election terms try to increase their own importance and the amount of work they have accomplished in the eyes of potential voters. On the other hand, for representatives of the eurosceptic parties, the number becomes a symbol of member states’ dependence on the bureaucratic structures in Brussels.

Different examples exist of other “facts” which are being used similarly by political opponents for these purposes and are similarly incorrect. Vladimír Maňka, a Slovak MEP for several terms already, overestimated the amount of work of the European Parliament by stating in a pre-election debate that the EP passes a comparable amount of legislation in one week to what the National Council of the Slovak Republic passes in 2 – 3 years. He meant to answer the question of what our MEPs do in Brussels and why their work is not more visible. This argument is not based on facts, either; according to our calculations, the European Parliament passed approximately 60 acts per week during the years 2009 – 2012, while the Slovak parliament passed over 200 acts in the last two years. On the other hand, Ján Oravec, representing the more eurosceptic side in the debate, used Maňka’s statement to support his own argument about the EU being too huge and issuing an unreasonable amount of directives, regulations and norms.

Politicians attempting to secure the votes of various target groups by using these kinds of factoids in their campaigns are also unified in failing to mention the differences in the fields of law which the EU influences. MEPs, MEP candidates and top national politicians should understand the EU enough to see that the influence of the Union is stronger and policy unification more desirable in some areas compared to others.

Who really writes the laws?

It is also important to stop and look at who these “Brussels bureaucrats” – owners of the infamous pens – are, as these arguments almost lead us to imagine them as aliens in suits. The authors of all European legislation are but representatives of member states; the right of initiative in the EU does not belong to the European Parliament, as is common in national politics, but to the European Commission. According to the Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament has an indirect right of initiative by asking the Commission to put forward a proposal. In reality, only 10 per cent of laws actually come primarily from the Commission; the rest are initiated by the Parliament, by member states through the Council of the European Union, or by other organisations. They must then be passed by a majority in the European Parliament.

Thanks to the Lisbon Treaty, even citizens have the right to propose legislation. The European Citizens’ Initiative allows one million European citizens to call on the Commission to make a legislative proposal. Since 2009, two initiatives have been successful in gaining sufficient support, and one of them approval of the Commission.

The way Delors’ myth spreads around Europe, and especially the renaissance it underwent in the recent election campaign, points to a lack of information about the interconnection of European and national legislation, not only by voters but also by the politicians, MEPs, and European officials themselves.

The information is nevertheless out there for everyone. The European Union publishes an unbelievable amount of data about its institutions and tasks, part of which is available in the languages of all member states. When fact-checking statements in the European election campaign, the percentage of unverifiable statements, for which we were not able to find sufficiently convincing data to either verify or falsify the argument, was only 7.6 per cent. In comparison, the overall statistics of the Demagog.SK project, which has been fact-checking politicians on the national level in Slovakia since March 2010, show as much as 15.4 per cent of statements are unverifiable. Therefore, a persistent and patient recipient of information – or a fact-checker – is able to find almost every piece of the puzzle, provided he first overcomes several layers of information in which he has no interest. We suffer from the phenomenon of the modern information era: we are flooded by information, data, and facts, rather than by the lack of them.

Analytical studies focusing on the extent of European Parliament legislation’s influence on national legislation also put forth that it is difficult to establish a methodology and framework for such research, as well as to determine what should be considered as “coming from the European Union”. We are talking not only about directives and regulations which the member states must include in their national legislation. There are also norms binding for member states even without passing national parliaments, rulings of the European Court of Justice, and the EU’s influence on the discourse and public debate as topics move from the European to the national agenda. Thus, the “European root” of policies and legislation remains an important question that can hardly be summed up in one sentence, no matter how many times campaigning politicians attempt to do so.

Veronika Frankovská

Veronika Frankovská

works at the Slovak Governance Institute. She has graduated from Durham University and has an MA in International Relations with a special focus on the Middle East. In SGI she works on communication strategies and is part of the Demagog.sk team.