Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Britain runs the Council of Europe!

The cat is well and truly out of the bag now.

The Foreign Secretary has announced the government’s priorities for its chairmanship of the Council of Europe. ‘Chairmanship of the Council of Europe,’ I hear you say - what exactly is that?


This once obscure outpost of regional largesse (the UK follows Ukraine and is followed by Albania) has suddenly become the lynch-pin of Britain’s effort to apply its wonderful diplomatic skill and invincible intelligence to reform of the European Court of Human Rights.

Now talking up reform is a sensible idea, politically. There is obviously lots wrong with the structures under which the Court has to labour, a fact of which all those who work in Strasbourg are painfully aware. Turning the chairmanship into the legal equivalent of D Day has allowed David Cameron and Ken Clarke to fight off Euro-sceptics (who are never very particular about which Europe it is they despise) by claiming that they are finally ‘getting a grip’ on this scruffy and intrusive human rights Babylon.

But hold on a bit.

When the cat’s away the mouse does play. The Foreign Secretary’s job these days is to translate the political into the diplomatically possible, ‘mediate’ (the right scholarly word I think) between the Tabloid incitements of his colleagues and the … er… need to keep Ukraine, Albania and so on onside.

So the announcement.

Lots of very sensible stuff, much of it obvious and almost all of it building on previous work, not least last year’s Interlaken Declaration.

But then, suddenly there is this: ‘human rights, democracy and rule of law are central to the policy of the United Kingdom in every area of government.’

Every area of government: does that include the cat-hating Home Office?

And then there is the government’s commitment to subsidiarity: ‘This involves strengthening the implementation of the Convention at national level, to ensure that national courts and authorities are able to assume their primary role in protecting human rights’.

Strengthening the implementation of the Convention ?

So will the Government lead by example, supporting the Human Rights Act as a model for Europe, or even adding to it so as to allow judges better to implement the Convention (by striking down Acts of Parliament)?

The ‘Declaration’ at the Ministerial conference on reform of the Court to be held in the UK on 14 May next year will be fun. This is getting very post-modern. Will the government (as chair of the Council of Europe) attack itself (as protector of all that is Great in Britain) for failing to treat its own recommendations with the seriousness demanded of foreigners.

Time for a jazz record.

You couldn’t make it up.