Britain's ability to fight terrorism could be in danger if EU criminal law opt out goes ahead


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The Independent Online

Britain's ability to fight crimes such as terrorism and drug trafficking will be in serious danger if proposals to opt out of EU criminal law go ahead, a group of leading academics warn today.

It would mean the loss of measures for swift extradition of criminals such as the European Arrest Warrant (EAW), which saw one of the London bombers returned from Italy after he fled, they insist.

“If it reduced the likelihood of our citizens facing trials abroad, it would also make it difficult for us to get our hands on people who, having committed crimes in the UK, have fled by Ryanair or EasyJet to Europe,” Professor John Spencer said. “Thanks to the EAW, for example, Husain Osman, one of the July 21 bombers, was returned from Italy within weeks. Without it, we might still be waiting for him now.”

The government has been at loggerheads with Europe, most notably with Strasbourg's Court of Human Rights, recently and today's report warns that such a sceptical attitude could have an equally damaging effect on its relationship with the EU's Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

The EAW has remained a subject of heated debate in the media - most notably when a group of MPs wrote to the papers in February 2012 urging the Government to use the protocol to completely repatriate the criminal justice system.

The EAW is particularly controversial with human rights groups like Fair Trials International arguing that the system, which saw 4,000 people extradited across Europe in 2009 alone, has led to cases of serious injustice because it has removed the traditional safeguards.

“The UK must take this opportunity to demand urgent improvements to the EU's fast-track extradition laws. Unless this is done many more people will suffer the ordeal of unjust extradition and our police will continue to be swamped by extradition requests for petty crimes,” said FTI's Chief Executive, Jago Russell.

But the 79-page study by researchers working at the University of Cambridge's Centre for European Legal Studies (CELS) argues that opting out of the EAW would make it harder for British police to investigate cross-border crimes and there is a risk that some major crimes will go unpunished.

The report examines the likely consequences of the UK choosing to use Protocol 36, agreed at the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007, to withdraw from a swathe of EU criminal legislation.

The Government has come under increasing pressure to do so, particularly from those who believe that exercising this right would “repatriate” criminal justice to the UK.

But authors Prof Spencer along with Dr Alicia Hinarejos, and Prof Steve Peers argue that escalating calls to opt out are based on “antipathy for the EU” as well as a misunderstanding of what this would achieve and the difficulties it would cause to Britain's ability to police international crimes. The UK would be left with no other choice but to ask for permission to opt back in, they say.

Under the terms of Protocol 36, the UK could opt out of more than 130 European criminal justice measures - such a legislation designed to enable information-sharing between police forces - at any time before June 2014, when the Luxembourg court is due to acquire jurisdiction.

The report insists the repatriation argument is flawed as a range of newer criminal justice measures, agreed since the Treaty of Lisbon came into force three years ago, would continue to apply in the UK.

“A block opt-out would make it harder for British police to investigate crimes with a cross-border element, harder to get hold of fugitives who flee the UK to another member state, and harder to move foreign convicted criminals from British prisons to other member states,” the authors add.

 “There is a risk that some serious crimes would be committed which would have been prevented if the block opt-out had not been exercised and a similar risk that some crimes would go unpunished. It is worth asking whether this is a price worth paying for a purely nominal increase in British sovereignty?”