Jim Murphy, the new Europe Minster, made his first appearance at the European Scrutiny Committee today. The general consensus that it wasn't too impressive. To be fair to him, the issues he was discussing - such as the revised Constitutional Treaty - are pretty complicated. But we would have expected him to have got his officials to brief him thoroughly on the really tricky points - such as the Charter - especially as the legal advice to the committee was leaked to the Telegraph.
After negotiating the new EU Constitutional Treaty Tony Blair told parliament that “Nothing in the Charter creates justiciable rights applicable to the United Kingdom.”
But the MPs on the scrutiny committee weren't convinced. They pointed out that the text of the UK's opt-out reads: “nothing in [Title IV] of the Charter creates justiciable rights applicable in the United Kingdom.”
They asked Murphy whether this meant that everything else in the Charter was justiciable in the UK? Murphy failed to answer the question.
He struggled to explain the meaning of the opt-out and failed to back up Blair’s argument that this will not be justiciable in the UK. He could only say that the Charter “doesn’t create any new rights.” He was asked over 10 times by MPs to give a straight answer “yes or no” to the question but he failed to do so –much to their irritation. Instead he repeated that “the legal advice that we have had is that this charter brings in no new rights.”
Jim Murphy’s failure to answer this question on the Charter only strengthens the growing consensus that the UK opt-out is not worth the paper it is written on. Jacques Ziller, a professor at the European University Institute in Florence, has said that the idea of one country opting out of the charter was “nonsense” and would quickly be challenged in the courts. The Guardian has reported that, former EU Justice Commissioner Antonio Vitorino has questioned the legal basis for the British opt-out and the Commission’s legal experts expect that the British opt-out will be tested in the courts.
Murphy's case wasn't helped by the fact that he was forced to defend Margaret Beckett's lie that there had not been any negotiations on the treaty until a couple of days before the summit.
He made a distinction between "discussions" and "negotiations". When it was pointed out that Government advisers had begun work on the treaty back in January he claimed that “There’s a difference between negotiation and conversation”. He argued that because no draft was on the table back then they were not negotiations.
The advisers - he said - were simply asked to "explain the UK's concerns and priorities" for the new treaty. Seemingly contradicting Beckett's definition of negotiations:
"To my mind the process of actual negotiation begins when you are invited to set out your core demands."
The MPs were not happy. Even the Labour chairman Michael Connarty - sensing he was being "had" - began ripping into him . Not the best debut performance we've ever seen.