Thursday, April 19, 2007

Big Brother's European project

If you thought New Labour just attacked human rights in Britain you would be wrong. Four detailed Statewatch analyses of draft European Union measures show the extent to which powerful member states, including Britain, are driving down protection standards in the creation of the so-called EU "Area of Freedom, Security and Justice". These cover suspects' rights in cross-border criminal proceedings, data protection in the area of police and judicial co-operation, and the expulsion of migrants from the EU. It was only on March 1 that its new Fundamental Rights Agency officially began operations. According to Professor Steve Peers, Human Rights Centre, University of Essex, the agency has no competence to deal with the issues of policing and criminal law, due to the insistence of the British government and other powerful member states. Professor Peers, in his analysis for Statewatch, notes: " But even if the Agency had such competence, would it make a difference? The powers of the agency are limited anyway. More importantly, the EU's human rights record as regards legislation on the issues of policing, criminal law, immigration and asylum is so poor, and becoming rapidly so much worse, that is hard to imagine that political gestures such as the creation of this Agency could have a significant impact."

New Labour has fought a long rearguard action against the principle of actually setting out suspects’ rights within Europe. Following a watering down of the text in a bid to accommodate Britain, the Council of Europe is no longer certain that the wording is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Independent of the EU, the Council of Europe, which was created in 1949, is a leading advocate for human rights throughout the Continent. If the revised text is adopted, it could mean that the ECHR is bypassed by the courts. As is well recorded, the Blair government is building the biggest co-ordinated database in Europe, embracing fingerprints, DNA and ultimately biometric details linked to an ID card. So it is not surprising that New Labour is leading the opposition to an EU framework decision on data protection. According to Professor Peers, the latest draft removes basic protections that apply domestically, such as the accuracy of data. It weakens protection relating to the transfer of data between member states and leaves wholly unregulated the transfer of data outside the EU as well to private companies. Key rights for individuals such as to access and erasure or correction of inaccurate data, are also weakened. Meanwhile, the Fortress Europe project is nearing completion, thanks to a new directive on the expulsion of migrants. Barrister Francis Webber says: "The idea is that there will be no hiding place anywhere in the EU for those entering or staying illegally. Wherever they go, once traced they will be liable to be removed. Someone who is ordered to leave Italy, or Spain, or Denmark, can be picked up in the UK, France or Germany and removed from the EU. The original ‘Return Action Programme’ emphasised the importance of proceeding as far as possible by voluntary returns. But in the process of agreeing the Directive, the principle of voluntariness has been abandoned, as have a number of safeguards which were designed to ensure that expulsion was fair, and that the rights of vulnerable people – children, the mentally or physically ill and torture victims – were properly protected. What is left is legislation which, if implemented, is likely to result in the spread of the worst expulsion practices, emphasising speedy removal over due process and human needs." The message from New Labour and other governments is clear: All those entering the EU should leave their hopes of human rights behind while existing residents face an emerging European-wide Big Brother state.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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