The government vowed to torpedo a proposal for a powerful "European public prosecutor" last night, warning that it would be the "thin end of the wedge" towards interference in Britain's criminal justice system.
The prosecutor would have legal powers to act on the European Union's behalf to "tackle serious crime having a trans-frontier dimension".
Initially seen as a mandate to deal with cross-border fraud using EU money, the proposal envisages that the office of the prosecutor would have the right to operate in any member state to bring criminals to justice for "serious crime affecting several member states". Supporters of the plan, led by France and Germany, argue that national police forces do not have sufficient resources, or links with other forces, to pursue the largest international fraudsters.
But the proposal looks doomed to failure as it is opposed by eight of the 15 EU members, when the opposition of just one could defeat it.
A spokesman for the Government confirmed last night that Britain was prepared to use its veto on the issue. He said: "This idea would mean setting up a whole new institution, which is the reverse of what the Convention is supposed to be doing.
"We already have cross-border judicial arrangements to tackle matters of joint EU interests, such as abuse of EU finances, and we are concerned about what areas of crime this prosecutor, if appointed, would investigate."
He said the proposed powers were not compatible with the variety of legal systems within the EU. Britain also believes that any body that has the power to initiate a prosecution in a member state must be accountable in that country.
"We believe it could be the thin end of the wedge towards what it is covered in national criminal justice systems."
Britain has argued that EU-wide fraud should be tackled at its roots, rather than by setting up a new infrastructure for administering prosecutions. It has called for far tighter controls on fraud - with countries that fail to implement them banned from receiving EU cash - and improved co-operation between the different judicial and customs authorities in member states.
The Tories fear the plan could be the first step towards a single European judicial system. A spokesman said: "These proposals will not make any difference. Fraud is not tackled by setting up some grandiose office. Brussels needs to get its own house in order. Criminal prosecutions are a matter for national governments."
Suzy Alegre, the senior legal officer for Justice, the human and legal rights pressure group, said the introduction of such a system would be "very difficult politically for the British government and probably other governments as well". She added that: "It would be a big leap."
She said the proposal raised the spectre of the prosecutor "shopping around" for the countries in which a conviction would be most likely.
- More about:
- Armed Conflict