November 2, 2009
A new report from eurosceptic campaign group Open Europe, entitled “How the EU is watching you: The rise of Europe’s surveillance state” claims that the EU is a threat to civil liberties in the UK. They are obviously aiming at the wrong target.
The starting point for criticism of this report is the fact that the policies and trends that they claim are a threat to civil liberties are much more far-reaching or entrenched here in the UK than they are elsewhere in Europe. There are more CCTV cameras here than anywhere else in the EU; the UK rate of DNA collection is five times higher than the next highest EU member state; and so on. Open Europe disingenuously claims that this makes Europe more of a threat because the British people are “numb” to developments.
If there were fewer CCTV cameras here in the UK, Open Europe could of course claim that this showed that we were about to experience an increase imposed by the EU. An intelligent reader will realise that Open Europe can’t have it both ways.
And it gets worse. There is a long list of issues where, Open Europe says, objectionable legislation originating in the EU has been transposed into UK law without proper scrutiny by the British parliament. These laws are, until the Lisbon treaty comes into force, agreed by unanimity among the member states without the proper involvement of the European Parliament. Let me remind you: unanimity is Open Europe’s preferred method of decision-making within the EU, and here they are complaining about it.
Lisbon will introduce QMV in the Council for justice and home affairs issues (JHA) and co-decision with the European Parliament. The complaint that there is no parliamentary scrutiny of this policy area falls away when the new treaty comes into force, or rather it should, except in the have-it-both-ways world of Open Europe. Apparently, “the lack of public engagement with this institution, as evidenced by the increasingly poor voter turnout in elections to the Parliament”, hampers the ability of the European Parliament to act on behalf of the citizen. Except that evidence of how much the citizen needs to be protected comes from the number of occasions the European Parliament has intervened, by using its powers over single market legislation, for example, or referring cases to the European Court of Justice. And in the UK, election turnouts have fallen just as fast as they have at European level. And the Open Europe report is full of occasions when the British parliament has failed to intervene or control what government was trying to do. Open Europe can’t have it both ways about parliaments.
And we desperately need parliaments to be involved. The alternative is simply continued liaison between governments, leading to policies being imposed on their own electorates. The biometric passport originates in a Council regulation that did not require the approval of any parliament, neither national nor European, but has the force of law.
There is a whole string of measures of this kind that have been agreed intergovernmentally through the Prüm treaty without British involvement – the Prüm group was only Belgium, Germany, Spain, France, Luxembourg, Netherlands and Austria – and Britain was forced into a take it or leave it position regarding the Prüm initiatives when it chose to join later. Britain was “alarmingly absent” from negotiations, we are told. But this is what a flexible, variable geometry Europe will look like, where countries can take part in the issues they want to cooperate on and opt out of the ones they don’t. And Open Europe, let me remind you, advocates this kind of Europe. Open Europe cannot have it both ways.
Rather than trying to conscript civil liberties as a eurosceptic argument and producing a report shot through with contradictions at every turn, here is a better way of thinking about the problem.
The British government, along with other European governments, wants to increase its powers of surveillance, in order to help it fight crime and maintain order. There is a balance to be struck between increasing these surveillance powers, on the one hand, and protecting civil liberties on the other. Left to its own devices, the British government, along with other European governments, is likely to get the balance wrong. This is not necessarily because it is malicious and Orwellian, although it might be: it is certainly because that is how governments are. They will err on the side of the bureaucrat.
To redress the balance, we need active citizens, active parliaments and active courts. The Lisbon treaty strengthens the role of the European Parliament in this area of EU legislation (mentioned only briefly by Open Europe in its report), strengthens the role of national parliaments in scrutinising EU legislation (not mentioned by Open Europe at all), and strengthens the rights of citizens, enshrining the Charter of Fundamental Rights into EU law (again, not mentioned at all).
The EU without the Lisbon treaty will be manifestly less well-equipped to strike the right -balance than the EU with the Lisbon treaty. Open Europe, in arguing the opposite, is simply perverse.
Of course, the suspicion remains that Open Europe wants to do away with the European Union altogether, but lacks the courage and intellectual honesty to say so.Author : European Movement UK