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Spain sidelines Britain in case of rough EU justice

Europe’s outgoing Spanish presidency and its justice commissioner clashed publicly on Friday over a decision to sideline British objections and ram through new plans to protect victims of crime.

Spain’s justice minister Francisco Caamano Dominguez, chairing talks with peers in Luxembourg, invoked a little-known annex to the Lisbon Treaty, for the first time, to sidestep British objections to the shape of a ‘European Protection Order.’

“Eighteen member states were in favour — we have a guaranteed qualified majority,” Caamano said, after EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding, seated next to him, insisted: “As several ministers said, you have no mandate, it needs more work.”

Caamano replied: “We have given the UK some time… the UK will decide after this period of reflection, but if they do not (vote yes), we will have a qualified majority.”

Reding hit back sharply: “I’m sorry Francisco, let’s not twist the numbers — and let’s not kick out Great Britain at the very minute they’ve joined (Europe) in a true way.

“If we are protecting victims, I don’t want Britain to be the first victim,” she said of the row.

A senior Spanish diplomat left the press conference seething, saying: “That’s an incredible thing to say… to compare Britain to a woman who has been the victim of domestic violence is outrageous.”

Madrid wants the new order introduced “to facilitate and enhance the protection granted to victims of crime, or possible victims of crime, who move between EU member states,” according to presidency notes.

This law would be focused on “crimes which may endanger the victims’ life, physical, psychological and sexual integrity, as well as their personal liberty,” and is largely aimed at helping female victims of domestic abuse.

Denmark and Ireland each have opt-outs in this area of European law, and six others spoke out against the Spanish proposal — Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Latvia and Slovenia — while Britain said it would abstain.

Britain also has opt-out rights, but in this instance, the previous Labour government chose formally to “opt in” to negotiations, only for the new coalition government, represented by Conservative justice minister Ken Clarke, to object.

London saw the scope of the plans as too wide, applying criminal law in civil and administrative areas, but said it would back an alternative commission proposal to narrow that scope to concern only orders arising out of criminal proceedings.

Reding and a string of commission officials, embarrassed at the EU’s collective failure to act to protect women who suffer from domestic abuse, insisted that all 27 EU nations would have backed her alternative scheme.

The little-known Protocol 21 states that “if after a reasonable period of time a measure referred to… cannot be adopted with the United Kingdom or Ireland taking part, the council may adopt such measure… without the participation of the United Kingdom or Ireland.”

It has first to set a deadline, but “if at the expiry of that period of two months… the United Kingdom or Ireland has not made a notification…, the existing measure shall no longer be binding upon or applicable to it,” meaning the rest of Europe can go ahead no matter what it says.

While the European order would not be transposed into British law, a diplomatic source said the government in London would be consulting carefully its legal position over the Spanish tactics.

The Spanish presidency will now push its plans through the European parliament, leaving the incoming Belgian presidency to finalise the deal — whether Britain likes it or not.