When the European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton unveiled last month her long awaited strategy on human rights, along with her decision to appoint a human rights envoy, it signaled something new for the 27-member bloc.

Human rights were now to play a much greater role in the EU’s trade, economic, social, and political policies. It would be, as Ashton said, the silver thread running through the EU’s external strategy.

But no sooner had Ashton published her strategy that British lawmakers who belong to the European Scrutiny Committee, which as its name suggests, delves into the details of all things EU, called for a debate in the House of Commons.

The Committee’s chairman is Bill Cash, a conservative lawmaker and veteran eurosceptic.

The debate was fascinating because it showed how hostile British conservatives are towards the EU even when the issue is as uncontroversial as ensuring that human rights get respected. Jan Techau, in a recent Strategic Europe blog, tried to understand what was behind this growing distance from Europe.

Euroscepticism is far from being confined to the Conservative Party. During the House of Commons debate, there were enough deputies from the opposition Labor Party who also wanted to make sure that the EU’s human rights strategy, and for that matter, an envoy, would not undermine the role of the British Parliament.

David Lidington, the conservative Minister of State for Europe and NATO at the Foreign Office, who opened the debate, tried to walk a fine line in supporting Ashton’s human rights strategy while emphasizing that the House of Commons could veto any EU initiative.

“The new human rights package will not affect our ability to formulate and conduct our own national foreign policy,” he told lawmakers.

“No EU position on external human rights policy or any other aspect of common foreign and security policy can be agreed without the approval of the British Minister or other representative in the room, and of course the same right of veto applies to every other member state. There is no suggestion in these documents or elsewhere that there should be any change to those arrangements,” he added.

After the debate, I spoke to Bill Cash and asked him what his main objections were to Ashton’s human rights strategy.

Cash, 72, is no stranger to controversy. He is one of the Conservative Party’s leading eurosceptics. At one stage, he led a rebellion against the EU’s Maastricht treaty of 1992 that paved the way for the introduction of the euro.

In 1993, Cash founded the eurosceptic European Foundation. He is a leading member of the European Reform Forum, founded in 2005 to consider the future direction of the EU.

DEMPSEY: What is your biggest concern about Ashton’s human rights strategy?

CASH: It will morph into a broader and wider kind of European creep. Once you have set up this kind of entity, it will feed into every area.

In the real world, it is not easily possible to exercise a veto right when you have created this kind of dynamic. It gets out of control and feeds into a vast array of activities in relation to trade, in relation to public procurements. It’s almost limitless.

DEMPSEY: So you think more decisions will be made in Brussels?

CASH: What I fear is that this creates a completely new network of activity that, by legislative osmosis, will grow exponentially. No one country will be able to control it. I regard the veto as more of an aspiration than a reality.

However, the really important question is this: Is it desirable that human rights, however important they are, should be dealt with through this kind of oversight?

DEMPSEY: You regard it as an administrative oversight?

CASH: Yes. You see, our experience has been that when you get this kind of overarching activity, you increasingly get lawyers involved instead of dealing with matters from a purely political point of view. I’m a lawyer myself. I have campaigned on human rights. But I think that the problems cannot be resolved by simply handing over the issues to the judiciary.

DEMPSEY: What role does the envoy play?

CASH: I am completely against an international human rights envoy.


CASH: Because I believe that human rights should be dealt with on an ad hoc basis, through the parliaments. In some countries, of course, the political environment is not suitable. I’m saying it is up to Parliament to decide how to pursue each case. The matter has to be dealt with in a practical way, not by an ideology.

DEMPSEY: During the Commons debate, you questioned the idea of the universality of human rights. Why?

CASH: It is not so simple. I believe in human rights; I believe in the manner in which we legislate. There are also massive questions being raised about the manner in which our judiciary is interpreting human rights—in relation to extradition, deportation, Abu Qatada, and so on. But the EU now is opening a window to the application of the universality of human rights without reference to democracy in individual countries.

DEMPSEY: So should those issues be left up to the national parliaments?

CASH: It is actually up to individual member states and individual Parliaments, based on the votes cast in general elections, to decide whether a particular human right is or has been contravened. It is a matter of law, not just some generic universality. I will be the first to fight for habeas corpus or trial by jury.

I am not against the individual defense of people in relation to human rights questions, and there are many things that crop up in the European strategic framework and action plan that I would strongly support in an individual context. What worries me is the universality, not only because of the panoramic view that is taken of all these matters, but because of the panoramic way in which it will be applied in practice, headed by the European representative. This is essentially a practical question.

I just don’t want the European Union to be engaging in European creep on this monumental scale.

DEMPSEY: Thank you.