By Tom Davies
Last Friday, David Cameron's "fury”" at the EU's imposition of a £1.7 billion surcharge on the UK made headlines. We were assured that the prime minister was "downright angry" about the matter. Journalists were treated to a lectern-thumping performance to demonstrate just how upset he was.
Except, as EU economic policy expert Iain Begg explained on Radio 4 that evening, the matter was actually a routine bit of EU accounting, a statistical re-assessment within a process that all national governments have themselves agreed. Quelle horreur! An intergovernmental body that check its accounts and periodically issues amended bills.
The problem with such knockabout politics is that it’s obscuring the important issues we need the EU to sort out.
On top of obvious Europe-wide policy areas that require common agreements, like environmental issues, trade, criminal investigation work, air traffic control, and even mutual defence concerns, there is also a need for stringent export controls to choke off the trade in torture equipment.
Presently the regulations on this have some alarming loopholes. On the one hand, in the UK not only is it illegal to buy or sell goods such as thumbscrews and electroshock-handcuffs, it’s also unlawful to arrange their sale anywhere in the world. Wherever the British seller of torture equipment goes, the law will follow them.
However, if a Belgian or French national wanted to make a killing out of brokering the sale of say 10,000 Chinese-made 'sting sticks' (truncheons that deliver an electric shock) to a country where the security services aren't too fussy about their interrogation methods, the euro-dealer could do so quite legally sitting in their office in Paris or Brussels.
Loopholes in the EU Council Regulation 1236/2005 "concerning trade in certain goods which could be used for capital punishment, torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" are worryingly easy to exploit. It just requires a phone, a computer, an understanding of the EU regulations, and a scruple-free desire to make money out of other people's pain.
To borrow Cameron's EU-knocking phrase from last week, the loopholes are "completely unacceptable" and we need the EU to close them as soon as possible. Two European parliament committees are presently considering the torture tools question and Amnesty is about to launch a new petition to push those infamous 'Eurocrats' to get on with the task.
Indeed, in their best Apprentice fashion, hundreds of Amnesty activists are hitting the streets of London this weekend attempting to "sell torture tools" to a no doubt bewildered public. It's a spoof and Lord Sugar needn't bother judging them, but it's worrying that it has even a semblance of authenticity. "Can I interest you in a restraint chair, sir? It's guaranteed to improve the performance of your country's interrogations."
Notwithstanding the caricature of a Brussels-based quangocracy imposing needless rules on bent bananas and curved cucumbers, we actually do need a multi-country ban on the brokering of genuinely nasty equipment which can be used to torture people around the world. The EU should tighten the torture equipment law and EU leaders like David Cameron should get downright angry if they don't.
Tom Davies is Amnesty International UK's Stop Torture campaign manager.
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