I’ve been doing a little Lexis-Nexising for a project on EU asylum policy. I can make only one conclusion: The reporting on this issue in the British media is truly miserable. It’s not just partisan and biased — I expect that and parse my reading accordingly — it’s often just plain wrong.

One of the most appalling aspects of the reporting is the confusion — sown deliberatly by the eurosceptic newspapers, I suspect — of two different “veto” Britain enjoys over EU asylum policy.

The first “veto” is a procedural decision over whether a Justice and Home Affairs policy in the Council of Ministers should be decided unanimously or by “Qualified Majority Voting”. To adopt QMV, the Council has to unanimously agree to do so. If they don’t, any one of the 25 countries can scupper a policy by voting against it. Therefore, if Britain ever votes to adopt QMV decision-making, the tabloids (and Tories) can wail about Blair “giving up Britain’s veto on asylum policy”.

The second “veto” Britain enjoys — along with Ireland and Denmark — on European asylum and immigration policy is the ability to opt out of any decision adopted by the Council, regardless of whether QMV was used or not. This was negotiated as part of the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam.

In other words, Britain is actually in a rather powerful position. It could agree to QMV, lose a Council vote 24-1 and still choose not to be bound by the resulting directive, which would be binding on nearly all the other countries.

But if Britain choses to accept the decision, it gives the tabloids a second bite of the cherry on accusing Blair surrendering to those wily foreigners in Brussels.

That’s exactly what happened over the EU asylum policies when they were decided in November. But the “veto surrender” meme can crop up without warning to pillory politicians for decisions made long ago.

Last week, the European Commission’s rebuke of Michael Howard’s asylum policy plans made it clear that Blair had opted into the Qualifications Directive, which was adopted last year and sets a common European defition of a refugee based on the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees.

Peter Preston summarised the media fallout well in the Observer. Reading the Mail and Sun, he argued,

You might have thought there was some great revelation, some monster scoop here. You might have thought that ‘tricky and determined’ Eurocrats and ‘stupid, naive and deceitful’ politicians in London had conned the great British public (and Edward Heathcoat Amory) all over again.

Or there was, perhaps, another way of putting it. That a stupid, naive, deceitful and idle press had been caught with its trousers down for the umpteenth time.

Eurocrats, many of them British as it happens, may or may not be tricky, but they don’t issue directives. That’s the job of the Council of Ministers, the job of national politicians who report to their national parliaments.

David Blunkett, his junior ministers and senior civil servants were all umbilically involved with last March’s directive that supposedly wrecked Howard’s latest whizz of a scheme, setting quotas just like Australia (which hasn’t joined the EU yet). Britain not only assented to this course; it specifically joined with other countries when it could have opted out by prior 1997 agreement. This was politics, our politics, from beginning to end. And it wasn’t remotely secret.

EU directives are open, published documents. The press can print them the moment they’re formulated for all to read. But only the FT does that punctiliously. None of the fulminating organs involved here did anything of the sort. Indeed, papers like the cost-pinched Express, which get lobby people in London to provide Brussels coverage from their Westminster desks, don’t even seem much aware of the basic system.

And as for Downing Street’s, not to mention Mr Howard’s, surprise and shock, what are we to make of that? Maybe Blair doesn’t follow these things. Maybe Howard never hears a bleep from the European Scrutiny Committee of MPs and the four Tories there whose job is to monitor and report on European legislation as it creeps down the pipeline. Maybe Edward Heathcoat Amory doesn’t talk to Derek Heathcoat Amory, a member of that committee. Or maybe this whole tale is just another farrago of spin and synthetic alarm.

Ouch. Absolutly right.

Update: Don’t get me wrong. This is a complaint about shoddy journalism, not eurosceptic journalism. The Daily Telegraph, after all, managed to provide accurate background while maintaining the political angle you would expect.