Election '97: Cook unveils scheme for judicial reform in Europe

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Labour is to propose far-reaching reforms of the European Court of Justice which would give more power to ordinary people to challenge European laws and institutions.

Under the plan, citizens and pressure groups fighting to protect a wide range of human rights as well as the environment, would be able to bring direct challenges to EU law in the Luxembourg court. At present, the rights of ordinary individuals and interest groups to contest EU laws which may adveresly affect them are extremely limited. However, the Labour plans would empower consumer protection bodies to take their cases directly to Luxembourg.

In 1994, Friends of the Earth considered launching an action in the European Court to prevent the emission of radioactive waste from Thorpe nuclear reprocessing plant in Cumbria. The group shelved the action on the grounds that it stood no chance of a hearing.

Labour's plans could now clear the way for such actions to go ahead.

The plan, which is expected to be widely welcomed by lobbyists and citizens' rights groups in Britain and Europe, is the first significant indication that Labour is serious about setting an original and postive agenda on European Union reform.

The proposal, drawn up by Robin Cook, the shadow Foreign Secretary, would be a key element of Labour's European Union reform proposals, to be presented before the Amsterdam summit in June, and is likely to win allies within the EU, particularly the Scandinavians.

The ideas stand in marked contrast to Conservative plans for reforming the European Court. John Major has long sought to limit the powers of the Luxembourg judges, which Conservative Euro-sceptics came to view as Euro-enemy number one, after rulings against Britain on fish quota hopping and the beef ban.

Labour's platform, however, is not to attack the court but to create an extended remit for it as a "citizens' court", to ensure European laws and institutions are more accountable.

At present, the Luxembourg Court's prime task is to ensure that member states properly enforce European laws by hearing challenges, brought by the European Commission or other states, against countries which do not comply. Much of the court's work deals with competition cases affecting such questions as company mergers.

The court has a duty to ensure that EU law is in line with international human rights laws, including the European Convention on Human Rights. Individuals also have some rights to bring cases, starting in the national courts, challenging the way a member state has implemented EU law.

However, under article 173 of the Treaty of Rome the rights of ordinary people and interested groups to bring direct actions for judicial review of EU laws is prevented unless they are able to prove "direct and individual concern."

The court has found the effects of EU laws cannot be limited to a finite group of people, particularly where environmental issues are at issue.

Citizens of the French overseas territory of Tahiti who attempted to halt French nuclear tests were recently refused the right to challenge the European Commission in the court for failing to apply health and safety rules under the Euratom Treaty.

Experts in Brussels say that the Labour proposal could have far-reaching implications for the protection of individual rights within the union, particularly where the environment is concerned.