How to spin bad policy

george-foulkes4x3.jpgGeorge Foulkes on the real agenda behind the Coalition’s dithering over the EUROPOL opt-out 

‘The National Interest’ is a potent political buzz-phrase, but it isn’t completely clear what it means. Is it what is best for the country? Or, what the country thinks is best? The two do not always align. How is it measured, and by whom? 

What is unambiguous is that ‘the National Interest’ is something that you support. No politician of any stripe would ever oppose ‘the National Interest’. As such, it is a phrase that draws assent without having to say anything specific. And when a politician overuses the phrase, it lets you know that they want to persuade you round to their position, but aren’t confident that they have any detailed arguments that you’ll find convincing. It’s a smokescreen, a bluffer’s aid. 

This is what sets off alarm bells over the Coalition government’s plans to opt-out of a whole swathe of EU measures relating to justice and policing. 

Under conditions secured in the Lisbon Treaty, the UK has the ability to opt-out of aspects of the European framework. Up for debate at the moment are 133 measures ranging from the European Arrest Warrant, EUROPOL, cyber-crime and border management. In order to opt-out of some of these measures, the government has to in fact op-out of them all, then apply to opt back in to the specific items it wants to retain. It has until the end of next May to formally make a decision, but murmurs from within the Coalition suggest they will opt out of the whole block of 133 then negotiate back in to between 60 and 100 measures.

When pressed to explain their thinking, Ministers say they have looked at each measure on a case-by-case basis, examining it against ‘the National Interest’. The phrase reappears in releases and statements with disconcerting regularity. Up goes the smokescreen.

There are two key problems with the government’s likely plan of action. The first is the cost to the UK of permanently opting-out of some of the measures, with EUROPOL a particular concern.

A report by the Lords EU Select Committee, debated this evening, expressed the view that “none of the concerns expressed by the Government [...] outweigh the benefits to the UK of Europol’s assistance to national police and law enforcement agencies in the fight against cross-border threats (including terrorism) and serious organised crime.” 

Rarely has an all-party report been so damning of the government line. 

The second problem is the cost of what the government hopes to retain. Opting back in is not a straightforward process. There is no guarantee that negotiations would be successful and we might find ourselves locked out of key crime-fighting tools. Ensuring that this doesn’t happen will require a large and wholly avoidable expenditure of diplomatic capital.

The rewards that the Government hopes to win by such a policy are largely intangible. The measures they hope to scrap are mostly technical points relating to the definition of certain crimes.

What is really driving this agenda, behind the smokescreen, is the streak of destructive Euro-scepticism that runs through the Tory backbench. In this instance, it is clear that ‘the National Interest’ is standing in for ‘the interest of a small, bullying minority’. David Cameron is trying to paint himself as a national champion, but in fact he’s having his arm twisted. It is a clever piece of political spin, but it’s a disastrous piece of policy that could leave the UK dangerously exposed to crime and terror.   

Lord George Foulkes of Cumnock is a backbench Labour Peer in the House of Lords

Published 1st July 2013

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