1215 and All That

by Andrew Stuttaford

Given that I don’t think that David Cameron has much of a chance of hanging on to his job after the general election next year, there’s a sense in which spending too much time discussing his thoroughly implausible “renegotiation” of Britain’s role within the EU is a pointless exercise. Then again, as the implausibility of this much-vaunted renegotiation may well play a not insignificant part in his defeat (by helping ensure that enough former Tories stay with UKIP) it’s worth understanding why no one should take Cameron’s claims very seriously.

The most important reason is that the very essence of the EU is that once a competence has been transferred to Brussels it becomes part of, to use the shorthand, the “acquis communautaire,” and cannot be handed back. To persuade every other EU nation to agree (because that’s what it would take) to somehow exempt the U.K. in any significant way from this would truly be a mission impossible.

And even if it were not, there is no reason to think that Mr. Cameron has the inclination, the toughness, or the attention to detail necessary to see it through.

A case in point is the European Arrest Warrant.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Conservative MP Douglas Carswell explains:

Ministers might like to talk Eurosceptic, but officials seem to be carrying on as before. Consider the decision, debated in Parliament today, to opt back into giving the European Commission and Court of Justice oversight over dozens of policing, justice and home affairs measures in the UK. Europol – the nascent pan European police force – will be given a greater role. Customs officials around the EU will cooperate more. The European Arrest Warrant (EAW) will mean that people in this country will continue to face arrest and extradition, without a British court being required to see if there is proper evidence against them.

European Arrest Warrants have, of course, been with us for a decade. Yet thanks to how the Lisbon Treaty was drafted, the UK government needs to sign us up again to the system. For all the talk of change in our relations with Europe, it has chosen to do so.

Why? If you listen to the Home Office, the EAW has been a vital weapon in the fight against terror. The 7/7 bombers, they like to remind us, were extradited from Italy under an EAW.

But are we to seriously believe that had there not been an EAW, the 7/7 bombers would still be in Italy? Of course, not. It is perfectly possible to extradite people against whom there is clear evidence without an EAW. Each week, over a dozen Brits are arrested in the UK because they are subject to EAWs issued elsewhere. What percentage of these are terror suspects? 1 per cent? Half of one per cent? A minuscule fraction of those extradited under the EAW have been terror suspects, and I doubt a single one of them could not have been extradited without an EAW.

One of my constituents – let’s call him Mr Essex – faces extradition to France under an EAW and certainly isn’t a terror suspect. Instead, he has been accused to tax evasion because someone using his name and identity has not been paying taxes in France as they should have. Or so he says. I am all in favour of suspects being extradited from one jurisdiction to another. But only if a prosecutor in one can show a court that there is at least some credible evidence against them.

That basic due process would allow my constituent the opportunity to tell the court a couple of things in his defence. Like that he did not, apparently, have a passport at the time of the alleged crime, so could not have been in France. Or like the fact that he has only ever set foot in France once before, on a day trip to Calais. Thanks to the EAW, there is no need for anything quite so tiresome. The French prosecutors simply fill in an application form, and the British police have to nab him. No British court can stop the process. Off he must go.

Is this really what we want?

The answer, of course, is no. By signing off on this, the British government would not only be walking away from its fundamental responsibility to its own people, but it would also be handing UKIP a very big stick with which to beat the Tories at election time. If Cameron cannot get something fairly simple like this right, can he be trusted to handle a renegotiation that will actually mean something? The answer is, again, no.

And here, also via the Daily Telegraph, is another part of the Cameron legacy in the making (my emphasis added):

British tax authorities have been accused of attempting to ride roughshod over Magna Carta in pursuit of new powers that will allow them to raid the bank accounts of those who fail to pay their dues. MPs on the Treasury Select Committee said they were “horrified” by the proposals which HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) says it needs to recover tax from 17,000 “recalcitrant debtors”.

Lin Homer, chief executive of HMRC, insisted that the powers would only be used in extreme circumstances and would never leave taxpayers short of “enough money to live.” However, she caused alarm by explaining that HMRC would be able to judge whether a debtor could afford to pay up because they would have access to 12 months of the target’s personal spending habits. The proposals are currently out for consultation until the end of July.

In a marathon session lasting more than three hours, John Thurso, Liberal Democrat member of the Committee, said HMRC was asking for power to over-ride Magna Carta which sought to protect citizens’ rights from plundering kings 800 years ago. “We are talking about the ability of one organ of the state to have the unique right to go against the Magna Carta charter and go in and seize – without judicial process or review – a bank account,” he said.  Steve Baker, Tory MP for Wycombe, told Ms Homer that HMRC was pleading “necessity” for new powers when in fact it was just “frustrated with a small number” of taxpayers. He said it reminded him of William Pitt’s famous view. The former prime minster said that “necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom.”

And yes, this is another gift to UKIP too.