Mark Wallace: Democracy and Criminal Justice must be defended
On Friday of this week, John Reid will be asked for Britain’s assent to an almost unbelievable proposal. At the meeting of the EU’s Justice and Home Affairs Ministers, the Commission will present its plans for transferring Justice and Home Affairs from Pillar 3 to Pillar 1 of the EU system. In plain English, that would mean nothing less than the abolition of the national veto on criminal justice.
Home Affairs, especially those regarding crime, have long been fiercely guarded by the EU’s Member States. Having given up control of everything from farming and trade to immigration, it was absolutely right that they at least defend a key aspect of statehood: the punishment of criminals and the protection of the people.
Unfortunately, the Commission has developed quite a taste for controlling law and order. Last year the European Court of Justice set a precedent in giving the Commission the right to punish through criminal law those that breached its Environmental policies, despite vocal opposition from 10 of the 15 Member States who had signed the treaties on what they thought was a clear understanding that criminal justice was reserved for national control.
Now, the EU wants to go the whole hog. If the Home Affairs Ministers agree on Friday, and the Heads of Governments agree at the end of the year, then criminal justice and police co-operation will be transferred wholesale.
Not only does the Westminster Parliament stand to lose its control of what is and is not a crime, even penalties will be decided at the EU level, undermining democracy even further. Transferring control of the matter from the Home Office, which does a bad enough job, to the notoriously wasteful and inefficient EU bureaucracy will undoubtedly make the implementation even worse, too. Once legislation has been introduced through EU channels, the EU will gain sole control over that area, locking Parliaments out of the process entirely.
It doesn’t end there, though. There is even more at risk than democratic control of criminal law. The Commission has made it very clear that also on the table is the judicial system itself. With majority voting, those countries that enjoy the protections of the British legal tradition (principally Malta, Ireland and ourselves) would find themselves consistently outvoted by a majority that do not recognise such essential principles as Habeas Corpus. Standardisation of legal procedure across the EU would certainly not result in the bar being raised to the standard we enjoy, but rather in many of our own freedoms being demolished.
It ought to be a simple decision. With John Reid’s reputation for what could politely be termed straight talking, one would expect him to tell the EU exactly where to get off. If he did so, that would be the end of the matter, as unanimity is required. Worryingly, he has avoided any commitment on the matter, with the Home Office conveniently delaying its official response to enquiries until the meeting is practically underway. Other Government comments have been equivocal at best, far from the clear “No” which would seem obvious. It is truly amazing that John Reid, supposedly cultivating his hard man image for a shot at the Labour leadership, seems about to roll over and give away the key responsibilities of his Office.
If the Government are not going to stand up for freedom under the law and Parliamentary control of criminal justice, then surely it is a perfect target for the Opposition, who have thus far remained shamefully silent. If being “in Europe and not run by Europe” means anything it all, it ought to mean retaining national control of criminal justice at the very least. David Davis surely does not believe it is acceptable for Home Office powers to be given up, nor does Graham Brady, Shadow Europe Minister, believe in ever closer Union, and yet thus far they have been inexplicably silent. In tactical terms this is a gaping open goal for the Conservative Party, and ideologically there is a fundamental principle at stake. What would our nation be if it did not control its own criminal law? What, for that matter, would the Opposition be if it does not oppose these plans?