As European politicians hit the campaign trail for the May EU elections, the online project FactcheckEU documents how truthful their campaign speeches really are.
When the socialist candidate for the EU Commission presidency, Martin Schulz, spoke to Czech television in an interview last week, he claimed that “two trillion euros get lost” due to tax evasion across Europe. Except that the European Commission actually puts the number at 1 trillion and that data is by definition hard to come by in the first place.
This was obviously not the first time that questionable data was being used in the EU election campaign.
Take Nigel Farage, the British arch-eurosceptic, who debated liberal leader Nick Clegg in March. He stated that “Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is coming into the UK at a greater level than it is to all the rest of the countries of the EU combined”. Except that OECD figures point out the EU as a whole attracts five times as much FDI as the UK.
These inaccuracies are now going to be systematically documented by a new website called FactcheckEU. The citizen journalists behind the project have called on politicians to “get their facts straight” when addressing EU citizens in the coming weeks.
Co-founder Pietro Curatolo told EurActiv how the ‘truth-o-meter’ gathers speeches and statements by political heavyweights, aiming to “hold politicians to account”.
“We want to be sure that, when politicians speak about things, they’re not just throwing figures out there. If you want to have an informed debate, it is important that you’re basing it on facts,” he said.
Curatolo previously launched an Italian fact-checking website called Pagella Politica. “In Italy, politicians often times say nonsense. We wanted to see whether what politicians were saying, was actually true,” he said.
The new, pan-European project also draws on citizens’ participation across European member states: volunteers flag statements by politicians and check them together with the FactcheckEU team.
PolitiFact in Europe
Fact-checking political speech is hardly new. In the US, PolitiFact has been doing it since 2007 and was a direct source of inspiration for FactcheckEU and other initiatives. The American fact-checkers won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for excellence in journalism in recognition of their coverage of the American presidential elections the year before.
In different EU member states, journalists have devoted their time to double-checking their national politicians on what figures they are quoting, too.
Sylvain Lapoix, a French journalist and fact-checking enthusiast, explained in a podcast how the practice has transformed the political debate in France. “There is a tradition in French political journalism that is very literary. As politicians started using more and more figures, rather than talking about their project for society […]the idea was to clear the fog around these numbers.” His project, Véritomètre, tracked statements in the 2012 elections in France.
But on European level, there is still work to do, Curatolo argued. “What surprised me is that in some cases even MEPs’ questions in parliament – which you presumed are fact-checked – are simply incorrect. You wonder to what extent these questions are researched.”
The Delors Myth
One of the most commonly heard statements is that “80% of regulation comes from the EU”. By the look of FactcheckEU’s data, the number is used extensively in national debates across European member states.
“I call it the Delors Myth,” says Curatolo. “The figure is based on a statement by Jacques Delors in 1988, in which he said that ‘in ten years, 80% of the legislation related to economics, maybe also to taxes and social affairs will be of Community origin’.”
Not so much a fact as a prophecy. “Ever since, it has been repeated… a lot,” Curatolo said. “But there are no calculations that show this is accurate. In fact, all studies have admitted to serious caveats.”
A number of attempts have been made to estimate the impact of the EU on national law but none are without serious loopholes. A study by the British House of Commons in 2010 argued that the number of laws based on EU laws ranged from 6% to 84% in different member states, and it all depends on how you calculate.
Still, both eurosceptics and pro-European politicians like to quote the figure. The former argues it shows that ‘Brussels’ is taking over peoples’ lives; the latter that it illustrates the importance of the EU.
Backing statements with data has become an integral part of modern day European politics. Political parties are keen to prove that their plans are well-calculated and people are increasingly interested to know the true cost of proposed policies.
Still, figures can be misleading. In the UK, “Farage likes using figures from MigrationWatch, for example,” Curatolo said. “But even if he cites these numbers correctly, you have to add or explain that they come from an organisation with a clear angle on a certain issue.”
Just recently, French extreme-right politician Marine Le Pen was attacked for spinning numbers and telling untruths on the monetary union. With just under five weeks to go before the EU elections, the battle for facts is on.
In February, Geert Wilders presented a report called ‘NExit’. The 164-page report claimed that a Dutch exit of the EU would boost the country’s Gross Domestic Product by 10 to 13% by 2035 compared with the status quo. Economic experts and rival parties were quick to counter the study, conducted by a London-based firm, saying the calculations were wrong or biased.
22-25 May: European Parliament elections across all 28 member states
FactcheckEU: Website homepage
4M: Podcast interview with Sylvain Lapoix on fact-checking in France
LSE’s EUROPP blog: Commentary on the ‘Delors Myth’ by professor Annette Elisabeth Toeller
PolitiFact: Pulitzer-prize winning website on fact-checking American politics