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Blunkett, Blair and the wonderful world of EU opt ins

UK opts in to asylum? Isn't that an export?

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While in the background the EU's interior ministers hatched plans to fingerprint all 450 million of us, the foregrounded story in the UK was our opt-out/opt-in/veto. Shadow Home Secretary David Davis claimed that actual Home Secretary (arguably the shadowier one) David Blunkett was selling the UK down the river by accepting qualified majority voting and losing the veto, while Blunkett insisted that we were getting the best of both worlds.

Blunkett's claim appears to be based, more or less, on the view that majority voting will make it a lot easier to bring in new security wheezes without having to bother too much about objections from lily-livered Scandinavians, but that by retaining the ability to just say no, the UK doesn't have to get involved in 'federalist' stuff like EU border police and an EU consular service and common visa. As Blunkett himself put it so clearly on Radio 4's Today this morning, "we don't have an opt-in, we have an opt-out."

You can just about detect what he might have been driving at here, but lesser mortals may not quite get the subtle nuances. Why, if you look here, you will see one such (a Mr T Blair) saying: "...it allows us to opt in and take part in these measures." Or as Blair put it even more bafflingly when explaining to his monthly press conference this morning, we "would only participate in European-wide action where we chose to do so, in other words stronger than an opt-out, an opt-in, we have to opt-in."

Perhaps the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister should look into the ins and outs of this one.

So what's the truth? Well, as a public service Statewatch, which has been very busy over the weekend, has commissioned a briefing on Vetoes, Opt-outs and EU Immigration and Asylum law from Professor Steve Peers of the University of Essex. This document, which we commend to all Prime Ministers, tells us that the opt-out countries (of which the UK is one) have three months to decide whether or not to opt in, that if they do opt in discussion goes ahead with their full participation, but that if their objections then hold up adoption the non opt out states can go ahead without them anyway. They can also change their mind, and opt in to legislation they'd previously not opted in to.

Got that? Professor Peers tells us that the UK has opted in to all proposals concerning asylum and civil law, and nearly all concerning illegal migration. But these are of course our specialist subjects. He adds that technically the UK does not have a veto anyway, but that so far there has been no case of the other states going ahead without the UK or Ireland once they have opted in to discussions. So in practice they have been treated as if they have a veto. Prof Peers says that QMV may mean that once the UK or Ireland has opted in they may no longer be able to avoid being subject to the legislation if it is supported by a qualified majority. But they certainly couldn't be forced to opt in in the first place. Which may be what Blunkett was on about.

It is a valiant and worthy explication, although we fear it may not have an immediate impact on politicians or the more strident sections of the popular press (i.e. all of it). But it's well worth a read if you want to know what they're on about better than they do. Get it here. ®

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