Friday, October 20, 2006

Britons Could All Too Soon Become Slaves

Britons Could All Too Soon Become Slaves
Friday, October 20th, 2006
Simon Heffer
We have been have been lulled into a dangerous sense of complacency towards the evils capable of being inflicted upon us, our country and our way of life by the EU.
Our proposed membership of the euro is, it seems, a dead letter. The French and the Dutch buried the EU constitution more than a year ago. However, something that could prove even more poisonous to our liberties than either of those anti-democratic impositions could be about to be foisted on us.
This Friday, in Tampere in Finland, there will be a meeting of EU interior and justice ministers. Up for debate is the matter of introducing qualified majority voting (QMV) on criminal justice matters: or, to put it more plainly, surrendering our veto on these. The potential for damage to our freedoms if this happens is awesome: the end of habeas corpus, a threat to trial by jury and the capability of the EU to interfere in hitherto sovereign matters such as sentencing policy are but three of the consequences should our veto go.
It is unlikely that a decision will be taken on Friday, and as such the Home Office is to be represented at the meeting not by John Reid, the Home Secretary, but by an obscure junior minister, Joan Ryan. However, the present Finnish presidency of the EU wants to have the veto removed, and by the end of its presidency in December.
It may be thought astonishing, given the imminence of this threat and its dangers, that there has been so little discussion of it by the media or by politicians. It may be abstruse and technical, but the loss of the veto in this crucial area is something to which we can all relate. Matters to do with the machinery of the EU are boring for politicians and unsexy for newspapers or television news, but that did not stop people becoming (quite rightly) excited about the threat of the single currency or the constitution.
We have all been obsessed for weeks with the date of Tony Blair’s retirement and the possibility of his being replaced by anyone other than Gordon Brown, so there may not have been room on the political agenda for something that concerns our most fundamental liberties. Above all, the silence from Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition on this vital matter has, as is the case on so many vital matters, been ear-splittingly deafening.
On July 28 - more than seven weeks ago - the chairman of the Freedom Association, the former Tory MP Christopher Gill, wrote to Sir David Normington, the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office. His letter was short and to the point. Mr Gill asked Sir David what the Government’s likely response was going to be to an EU memorandum issued in June about “implementing the Hague programme - the way forward”: in other words, the Government’s view on whether it would submit to the introduction of QMV on justice and home affairs. As of yesterday, Mr Gill had had no reply.
So, for all we know, Miss Ryan will go to Tampere the day after tomorrow and raise no objection, on behalf of 60 million people in this country, to all future laws on criminal justice matters proceeding only in accordance with what has been agreed with a majority of other EU states.
That, as the Freedom Association points out, is not the end of it. The surrender of our veto would be a key stage in the incorporation of corpus juris into our law. This is the continental system of conducting criminal proceedings. Habeas corpus is unknown to it, which means that Britons could face detention not just without trial, but also without charge, for months or possibly years. One Briton, Chris Lees, recently spent 50 weeks in a Spanish jail without being charged with anything.
At present, criminal justice policy is included in what the Eurocrats call “Pillar 3″: individual countries retain some of their sovereign rights. The Hague programme would move it to Pillar 1, where it could become a common policy. Asylum, migration and judicial co-operation policies have already moved to Pillar 1: the Finns feel it is logical for justice and home affairs to go with it.
The Commission now wants what it modestly calls a “bridging clause” to overcome difficulties in ensuring that the “community method” is used in matters concerning “freedom, justice and security”: and Friday’s meeting is about smoothing the way to such an arrangement, and soon.
The real beneficiary of such a change would be the European Court of Justice (ECJ). It already has the power to declare any national law invalid if it conflicts with EU law. If justice and home affairs were moved to within the first pillar, the competence of the ECJ would be widened to take in matters affecting the police and the judiciary, with far-reaching effects. If the ECJ legislates on anything to do with justice and home affairs, it then becomes a community competence.
Last September, the ECJ gave the EU powers to set criminal penalties. If we surrender our veto on these matters, EU-set penalties could be imposed on British subjects in Britain, and for breaches of laws that are not crimes or punishable in Britain. Equally, according to some legal opinion, matters that are criminal offences in Britain could be decriminalised by a decision of the EU without any recourse to the will of the British people.
The other horror is that, as EU competence increases, so the ability of member states to propose their own laws for their own people shrinks until it is extinguished. That is the ultimate goal of the ever-closer union: but it entails a stark and anti-democratic removal of sovereignty from this area which impacts directly on our most basic freedoms and liberties.
This power for the EU is even greater than was proposed by the defeated constitution. It means laws being made by QMV at meetings of the Council of Ministers, and forced on Parliament as directives.
Under our constitution, Parliament has always been there to hold the executive in check. Were our veto to be surrendered, it would not even be our executive that would be uncheckable short, effectively, of Parliament deciding we must leave the EU. It would be an executive made up of ministers from all over Europe, for almost none of whom we have, of course, ever voted. It would make a nonsense of the notion of our being a democratic state, and render participation in general elections no more significant than participation in a survey conducted by an opinion pollster.
With the loss of habeas corpus there would be more cases such as that of Mr Lees, with people floundering in jail without charge. There would be no guarantee of our historic right to trial by jury. The way would be open for a Europe-wide police force answerable to no nation and subject to no parliamentary scrutiny.
Indeed, this exists in embryo, since France, Portugal, Italy, Spain and Belgium already supply officers to something called the Euro Gendarmerie Force. This is a military police outfit and answers to the European Commission for its ultimate authority. It is, in this respect, the way of the future - an entirely undemocratic and largely unaccountable future at that.
Briefings have it that this illiberal plan is essential for the fight against Terrorism. Yet, as with identity cards, not a single terrorist is likely to be caught or convicted because of it. It is all about maximising the power of the EU, and hobbling the nations that comprise it. At least, on Friday, we shall finally get an honest answer to the question of whether this Government is happy to destroy our basic liberties in this repulsive cause.