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Britain yields to EU over criminal justice

By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in Brussels and George Jones
(Filed: 19/05/2004)

The Government signalled yesterday that it was willing to breach the first of its "red line" safeguards on the European constitution by agreeing to cede Britain's veto over sensitive areas of criminal justice.

The shift in policy raises fears that Brussels could acquire the power to interfere with the common law tradition of habeas corpus, trial by jury, and rules of evidence.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, told European Union foreign ministers in Brussels that Britain was open to majority voting on criminal procedures so long as there was a genuine "emergency brake" to protect vital national interests.

The draft of Article III-171 stipulates that proposals must not infringe the "fundamental principles" of each state's legal system, and creates a vague right of appeal to the EU's ruling council of leaders of the 25 member states.

A British official said the language would have to be changed before the Government would agree to give up the veto.

"We've got to be absolutely crystal clear what we are committing ourself to," he said. "Criminal procedure is very close to the hearts of people."

The Government rejected the clause outright last year, warning that it could "cover almost any aspect of criminal procedure during an investigation, prosecution, and conviction".

But a European Union diplomat told The Daily Telegraph Britain had changed tack as pressure mounted for harmonisation after the Madrid bombings.

"All we are arguing about now is how strong the emergency brake should be," he said.

David Heathcoat-Amory, a Tory MP on the drafting convention for the new constitution, said: "The fudging has already started, and the red lines are suddenly turning a washy pink."

The concession came during a second day of gridlock in talks to relaunch the constitution, five months after it was blocked by Poland and Spain in a dispute over voting power.

Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, Poland's foreign minister, said he would not bet "one euro" on agreement at the June 17 summit of EU leaders, adding that France and Germany had conceded nothing themselves.

Mr Straw also refused to give any odds on agreement being reached and Downing Street said "real negotiations" had now begun.

The Foreign Secretary left Brussels insisting that Britain would stand firm on its other red lines - retaining the national veto on EU decision-making on taxation, foreign policy, social security, defence and contributions to the EU budget.

Addressing business leaders in London last night, Mr Straw gave an assurance that the Government would not allow the EU constitution to be used as a backdoor route to water down Thatcher trade union reforms.

If the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is made legally binding in the new treaty, it could give the European Court sweeping powers to overturn British law and roll back many of the free-market reforms of the past 20 years.

Laws on trade union recognition, secret ballots before strikes and secondary picketing could be at risk if the court began to re-interpret UK employment regulations.

Mr Straw told the Confederation of British Industry the Government was putting the interests of business "at the heart" of its negotiating position on the constitution.

"We will insist that any new treaty - among other things - keeps the national veto for tax and social policy; and that the Charter of Fundamental Rights creates no new rights under national law, so as not to upset the balance of Britain's industrial relations policy."

Since becoming Prime Minister, Tony Blair has kept most of the trade union reforms introduced by Lady Thatcher's governments in the 1980s.

The only area where Britain is totally isolated is on a clause that would allow the rest of the EU to abolish Britain's 2 billion-a-year budget rebate - which is resented by most other member states.

Mr Straw said bluntly yesterday that there would be no deal unless Britain got its way. "If we do not get the key red lines for the United Kingdom then we won't sign up for this constitutional treaty."

EU officials noted the term "key" red lines, taking it to mean that lesser lines could be rubbed away.

In the negotiating room, Mr Straw - who is adopting an increasingly sceptical approach to the constitution - complained about being bitten by mosquitoes.

As they buzzed irritatingly around the room, Mr Straw suggested they were anti-British insects.

Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister, who earlier accused Mr Straw of using "salami tactics" to slice more concessions, said they were in fact "pro-European mosquitoes".