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Hidden cabinet makes British policy

Without a word to Parliament, Michael Howard has been making key decisions on our affairs. Sarah Helm peeks behind closed doors in Brussels
THE GIANT Council of Minister building in Brussels was shrouded in thick yellow fog on Thursday morning - which may have been comforting to the European ministers, hoping that nobody would notice the more unpleasant decisions they were about to take.

The fog was no doubt particularly comforting to Michael Howard, who wanted nobody to see that as he slipped into the Consilium Justus Lipsius (as the council building is ludicrously called) he had cast off his role as Home Secretary, and become a fully paid-up European interior minister.

Thursday's events, when ministers took highly controversial decisions on race and immigration, told us a lot about the unaccountable and secretive system of government evolving with ever greater speed in Brussels.They also told us a lot about the real role played here by British ministers, and the way Britain's policies towards Europe are actually contributing to the ugly construction which now passes for European government.

If anybody in Britain paid any attention to the justice and interior ministers' meeting, they might recall it as a familiar story of a brave British minister fighting off the iniquitous plans of the EU: this time the stalwart Michael Howard, blocking efforts to force Britain to adopt intrusive anti-racism laws.

Mr Howard, in his guise as Home Secretary, did indeed veto plans to harmonise laws on race and discrimination. But at the same meeting, in his role as a European interior minister, he assented to 29 European policy decisions, many of which have wide-ranging implications for Britain, as for every other member state. Some of these were in line with Britain's hard line on race and immigration. But in some cases Mr Howard adopted the more liberal social position of his partners, because the decisions were part of a general policy trade-off.

All the decisions could have vital implications for British criminal justice legislation and foreign policy, and will contribute to burgeoning European bureacracy. Yet none were discussed in Parliament beforehand.

Among them were:

n A radical tightening of Europe's visa rules, which will for the first time mean travellers from 10 Third World countries must obtain visas before transiting European airports. The measure, to be policed by Brussels, is to stop illegal immigrants entering countries while in transit, but the countries targeted are certain to view the move as discriminatory. Mr Howard successfully opposed the imposition of visas for transit passengers from Bangladesh and Pakistan, because these were countries with which Britain has a "special relationship" and "their nationals do not impose any problem at the present time".

n A restrictive definition of a "refugee" which aims to prevent people fleeing civil wars or persecution by non-state bodies from seeking refuge in Europe. The definition rolls back 45 years of refugee human rights law in the 1951 UN Convention. It was passed despite fierce objection from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and Amnesty International.

n An agreement to examine the feasibility of fingerprinting all asylum- seekers who arrive in Europe, and a proposal to set up an asylum fingerprint exchange.

At the Thursday meeting, several member states wanted to balance the new immigration and asylum controls with better anti-racism laws and social rights for immigrants legally resident in Europe. Although Mr Howard opposed the anti-racism measure, he signed Britain up to one which will slowly grant important new rights to legal immigrants, with the aim of eventually giving them full rights of movement and European citizenship.

The suggestion is that the Home Secretary may have agreed to do this in return for some flexibility for Britain on the Europol Convention, setting up a European police force. However, any move to give non- British nationals a form of European citizenship would be viewed as highly controversial by Tory right-wingers.

In addition to decisions taken after debate, Mr Howard passed 15 important policy decisions, relating to such issues as European police and drugs policies, simply on the nod, after recommendations of officials who had negotiated joint positions before the meeting began. It is unlikely Mr Howard himself knew the full implications of these so-called "A points", never mind Parliament.

Although some resolutions passed were made available to the press afterwards, nothing on the agenda was made public beforehand, so neither members of the European Parliament nor lobby groups had any chance to influence Thursday's decisions. Mr Howard joined his partners in a resolution that texts adopted in the field of asylum and immigration could be made public "after" decisions were taken.

Sir Ivan Lawrence, the Conservative chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said his committee had received no information about the policies Mr Howard was signing up to on Thursday and described this as a "major flaw". This kind of secretive decision-making goes on almost daily among ministers and groups of officials meeting in the Consilium, although Europe's leaders constantly promise more "transparency".

Ironically, Britain and Euro-sceptics like Mr Howard can in large part be held responsible for the creation of such an unaccountable process by opposing federalist structures in the Maastricht treaty. In next year's inter-governmental conference on European reform, Germany and many other members states would like to open up all Brussels decision-making to full scrutiny by the European Parliament in a fully federal system. By persistently vetoing any attempts to set up federalist structures in Brussels, Britain forces other member states to evolve a complicated and unaccountable system of ad-hoc "co-operation", beyond the power of national parliaments to oversee, and beyond clear legal control.

Glancing out through the yellow fog, which was turning brown in the dusk, one official put it this way: "In this place we get decisions, it's just that nobody ever knows how they were made."