Within the next fortnight, the British government must decide whether to appeal against a European Court of Human Rights ruling that prevents the deportation to Jordan of the Islamist preacher Abu Qatada. In January, the judges in Strasbourg acknowledged that Qatada would not be tortured if he was returned to face trial in Jordan, which had been their original objection. But they still felt there was a risk that the evidence that was to be used against him had been extracted under duress.
This was a significant blow to the Government, which has gone to considerable lengths to obtain a guarantee from Jordan not to ill-treat Qatada. Subsequently, Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has been to Amman to see whether the European Court's concerns can be addressed. But she is, effectively, trying to prove a negative - and while the Government still believes that it will be able to convince the court to withdraw its objections, experience suggests otherwise. The judges moved the legal goalposts once, and may do so again.
Contrast these diplomatic and juridical contortions with the actions of the French government. It, too, is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, and subject to Strasbourg's decisions. Yet this week it expelled three foreign radicals regarded as threats to national security and ordered the deportation of two others. Since we are constantly being told that this is not allowed under the convention, how have the French managed to do it? The Italians, too, deported a radical Islamist to Tunisia after his release from prison, in contravention of a ruling by the Strasbourg court. This week, the government was fined a paltry £12,500 for ignoring the judgment.
President Sarkozy has not been arrested. Nor has Italy suffered the dire consequences that we are always being told will befall those disobeying the Strasbourg court. Ministers here are apparently concerned that if they try to remove Abu Qatada without its agreement, our own courts will issue a warrant to arrest anyone associated with the decision. But is this true? After all, our Supreme Court has already ruled that Qatada can be deported, so on what grounds would British judges stop it?
We are not suggesting that we should behave like France in this, or any other judicial matter; indeed, the UK has bent over backwards to accommodate Strasbourg. But there comes a point when the elected Government, backed by Parliament and the national courts, and having done everything it reasonably can, must make its own decision - not just on the grounds of national security, but as a matter of principle.