Page last updated at 16:39 GMT, Thursday, 19 April 2012 17:39 UK

MEPs clash over EU accession to ECHR

MEPs have had a lively and, at times, heated debate on progress towards EU accession to the European Convention on Human Rights, on 19 April 2012.

The ECHR was drafted in 1950 by the Council of Europe - a body independent from the EU - and came into force in 1953.

It covers principles including the right to life, freedom of the press and provisions on privacy; and violations of the convention are dealt with by the European Court of Human Rights, based in Strasbourg.

Although all EU member states are signatories to the ECHR, there is a proposal for the EU as a whole to become a signatory.

This would implement a power in the Lisbon Treaty for the EU to have "legal personality", meaning that it is able to accede to international treaties and conventions in its own right.

However, the move needs approval from all EU member states, and accession has been blocked by the UK and France, who have raised concerns over the impact of the move on national sovereignty.

Spanish MEP Enrique Guerrero, vice-president of the Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, and Romanian liberal MEP Renate Weber criticised the two countries, but particularly the UK, for holding up the process.

They said they supported accession because it would afford European citizens greater protection of their rights.

This argument was also made by the far-left's Marie-Christine Vergia, a French MEP.

The debate came on the same day the UK chaired a special conference in Brighton, to consider how to reform the European Court of Human Rights.

Britain has put forward a draft declaration which calls for more cases to be dealt with in national courts, to reduce the huge backlog of cases being sent to judges in Strasbourg.

German green MEP Barbara Lochbihler said the UK was trying to use its presidency of the Council of Europe to weaken the court.

She told MEPs to resist any moves to undermine the court, and appealed for the UK government to reconsider its position.

UK MEPs go head-to-head

But British Conservative MEP Charles Tannock questioned why the British or French public should have any faith in a court that has "no integrity".

It should not be up to "foreign, unelected, unaccountable judges" to decide on the UK's national security matters, he said, adding that the court's powers should be "reigned in".

British MEP Ashley Fox, also from the Conservative group, said the ECHR "far too often… interferes" in member states' governance.

He cited recent cases concerning attempts to deport radical cleric Abu Qatada's from the UK and the ruling on prisoner voting rights.

Mr Fox stressed his group was committed to protecting human rights but said it did not support accession given that every member state is already a signatory to the convention.

Often angry exchanges between British Conservative, UKIP, Labour and Green MEPs dominated parts of the debate, prompting other members in the parliament to comment that the session had turned into an internal UK argument.

British Lib Dem MEP Sarah Ludford drew attention to a briefing given to UK MEPs stating that the UK government was "fully committed" to EU accession to ECHR.

She asked Mr Fox: "Are you telling us that you refute the view of a Conservative-led government?"

He responded that the briefing was circulated by the British permanent representative on behalf of the coalition government.

"We are a Conservative party and we have a different policy on this issue, which we believe is far more in tune with the British people," he added.

Supporters of EU accession say it would bring EU law into line with the legal systems of member states, and a draft agreement on EU accession to the ECHR was reached during 2011.

Under the agreement, the EU would have one judge on the bench of the court, and 18 MEPs would take part in the judicial selection process overseen by the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly.

Useful links:

Democracy Live's guide to how the plenary sessions work.

A disclaimer on the use of simultaneous interpretations, on the European Parliament's website.

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