Because the constituent Member States in the European Union are all democracies it is easy to assume that the European Union itself is as jealous of civil liberties and human rights as are those used to living in a democratic environment. Regrettably, there is increasing evidence that this is far from being the case. Much of this has to do with the way the EU operates, and the technocratic rather than democratic nature of its major institutions and political structure. Far more power resides with permanent officials in the Commission compared to elected politicians than is the case with civil servants and elected representatives at national level. The relentless centralising tendency of the Brussels machinery has had the effect of making those in the EU administration, untrammelled by effective democratic pressures, far more interested in accruing more authority than in being concerned about the interests of the individual citizen. In the background is a considerably more authoritarian and intolerant tradition in many parts of the EU than is found in Britain. The result has been an extraordinary reduction in the effective power of the individual European Union citizen, reflected all too conspicuously in protest votes and apathy in EU level elections which are rightly regarded as being window dressing rather than real opportunities for ordinary people to use the political process to determine the future.
The decline in civil liberties and democratic control runs in all directions. The European Central Bank, with its members appointed for an eight year term, is almost completely unaccountable. The powers of police forces have been enormously increased, including the introduction in some significant cases of immunity from prosecution for police officers, exclusive access to Europol's comprehensive computer system and authority for police officers from one country to operate in another. An EU-wide arrest warrant is being introduced which will allow extradition from one country to another for offences as vague as "racism", "xenophobia" and "swindling". A definition of terrorism has been introduced that is so broad that virtually anybody engaging in civil disobedience can be charged with a serious offence. A legal system is being introduced which ends rights such as Habeas Corpus which British citizens have enjoyed since the Middle Ages. No longer will anyone arrested have to be either charged or released - compared to a notorious Belgian case where a suspected paedophile has been held on remand without being charged for five years. Meanwhile, civil liberties and guarantees against unwarranted search, seizure and confiscation of property are all being weakened. Privacy has been attacked, with data protection rights being heavily watered down. Millions of personal e-mails, other internet communications and telephone records are to be made accessible to the police and intelligence services in a move that has been denounced as being an enormous extension of state power over private information. Meanwhile, the ways in which ordinary citizens, businesses and other organisations are allowed to conduct their affairs are being more and more tightly constrained by huge quantities of regulations and directives emanating from Brussels. Dissent of any kind is being discouraged both at civil and political level, not least by proposals to make life as difficult as possible for any political party which does not share the centralising goals of the European Union.
The undermining of civil liberties and the democratic rights which go with them is having a profound effect on the way the EU is perceived by many of its citizens. There is an increasingly wide gap between the political classes who run the EU and the vast majority of people who are on the receiving end of the decisions they take, over which many feel they have less and less control. Momentous choices, like adopting the euro which meant the abandonment of long established currencies, have been made without a single vote in their favour having been cast by the public in almost any euro-zone countries. No doubt this is because in many of them, as actually happened in Denmark, the vote would not have gone the way those in favour of the euro would have wanted. The EU is currently involved in a major exercise in defining how it is to be run in future, but this too is a largely top down exercise from which almost all those who do not share the EU centralising vision are effectively excluded. Increasing loss of confidence in the democratic process seems to be the inevitable but highly regrettable consequence as more and more of the electorate feels powerless, disengaged, and devoid of any effective way of influencing what the EU does.
More alarming is the extent to which the tendency to undermine civil liberties is showing signs of accelerating. Partly, this has to do with the events of 11th September 2001, which provided a golden opportunity for those in power to crack down on those who might disagree with them. It was an understandable and widely held desire to be able to track down terrorists which provided the EU with the cover it needed greatly to extend the powers of Interpol. Now extradition from one EU country to another is to be permitted, even if those concerned have committed no offence in the country in which they are arrested. In August 2001 the Council of Ministers charged Europol with drawing up a list of "troublemakers" who were to be "tracked and identified". The main suspects were not bombers but environmentalists whom the EU feared might carry out "intentional acts destabilising the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures".
The intolerance which tendencies of this kind manifest is also reflected in changes to the EU legal system which are now in prospect. The so-called "Corpus Juris" proposals are designed to produce a "unified legal space" covering the whole of the EU, based on the continental Napoleonic code rather than the British Common Law tradition. The inquisitorial system favoured by the EU will mean the abandonment of trial by jury as well as other safeguards which have been treasured in Britain for centuries. The issue at stake is not just whether our system is preferable to those operated the other side of the Channel, though many argue that it is. It is also about why we should be forced to abandon tried and tested arrangements, in which there is a wide measure of trust, for a different and alien system simply for the sake of producing unwanted and unnecessary uniformity.
One of the perennial lessons of history is that any political organisation which is not subject to constant effective democratic pressure gradually becomes more self serving and corrupt. As its activities become less easy to justify, so those who are serving it have greater and greater incentives to secrecy and exclusiveness as the rights of the ordinary citizen become of increasingly less account. The Commission is surely a classic case of this kind. The corruption scandals which led to the entire body being dismissed in 1999 were the tip of the iceberg although regrettably promises to clean up their activities appear to be making little if any progress. The disgraceful treatment meted out to those such as Bernard Connolly, Paul van Buitenen and Marta Andreason who have dared to speak out against waste, chicanery and corruption, in the Commission shows how little respect for their responsibilities those running the EU really have. How much hope is there when the European Court of Justice has even developed a doctrine that criticism of this sort is a form of blasphemy, and in a culture in the Commission where apparently anyone doubting the wisdom of the EU project is reckoned to have to be mentally unwell?
If there is a tendency for civil liberties in the EU to be undermined as a result of the increasing centralisation of power in Brussels, and the erosion of authority at national level, how easy is it likely to be to reverse these trends? Unfortunately, it is likely to be extremely difficult. This is partly because there is major "democratic deficit" in the EU, which makes it very hard to exercise any really effective pressure for reform on the EU bureaucracy, but also because of the strong tradition of acquis communautaire which means that once any power has been subsumed by the EU it never returns to national level. The result is that there is a ratchet in place which steadily pulls more and more authority to the largely unaccountable centre of EU affairs at the expense of the ordinary citizen.
The moral to be drawn from the erosion of civil liberties in the EU, and the increasing intolerance of dissenting views, is not a new one. It is that the only really effective check on all these unwanted trends is a sufficient degree of accountable democracy. This makes it possible for currents of opinion among the voters to be channelled into effective decisions by the politicians they elect. It enables there to be a democratic check on everyone paid by the public purse, to stop them abusing their positions at the tax-payer's expense. It enables the voter, in turn, to feel sufficiently involved and empowered to be willing to participate in elections and to take part in the democratic process in other ways. This in turn produces a civil society which is robust enough to tolerate dissent which is willing to fight hard to protect the rights of minorities, and vigilant enough of individual rights to keep the power of the state at bay. Living in a country like Britain, which has developed these very precious endowments over many generations, is a privilege which we need to work hard to cherish. The problem we now face is that many of those both in Britain and elsewhere who are most enthusiastic about creating a United States of Europe are willing to turn a blind eye to the extent to which the EU Commission fails to reflect these values. This is a very dangerous path and we should not go down it.
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