The Prime Minister is expected to make a speech on the EU referendum today, in which he will among other things, set out his views on the UK opting out of approximately 130 EU policing and criminal justice measures. In our submission to the House of Lords Select Committee on the EU, the Police Foundation drew attention to the serious risks to the public of opting out of some of these measures, in particular the European Arrest Warrant, the European Supervision Order, the European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS), Europol and Eurojust. This view has been almost unanimously echoed by other criminal justice and public safety organisations, including the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). Opting out of these measures would constitute an act of political grandstanding that contradicts the Government’s own policies to cut costs, support victims, bring offenders to justice and protect the British public from harm.
The Government’s National Security Strategy sets out, “a commitment to collective security via a rules-based international system…including our vital partnership with the EU”. It prioritises four high level threats to the UK of which two - international terrorism and serious organised crime - would be directly undermined by opting out. Even if we were able to successfully opt back into those measures that protected our country from these global threats, the UK would be placed at risk for the period during which negotiations for opting back in were taking place – and this is likely to amount to years rather than months. Furthermore, it would dislodge our place as the leaders in Europe in the fight against terrorism. It is difficult to see how this can be in our nation’s best interest.
The Government’s Strategy for tackling serious organised crime, ‘Local to Global’, also emphasises the importance of ensuring operational cooperation on internal security within the European Union. By opting out the UK will find it significantly more difficult to identify and extradite serious criminals and could potentially become a safe haven for fugitives from justice and members of cross-border organised crime networks. The recent Scott Baker review of Britain’s extradition arrangements, commissioned by the Home Office, found that although the European Arrest Warrant had its flaws, which the Review recognised the EU was attempting to remedy, it has improved the scheme of surrender between member states.
In response to the criticism that by opting out the Government would be placing the British public at risk, it is rightly explained that the UK could negotiate with other EU member states to opt back into selected measures. But as well as placing the country at risk during such negotiations, there is every possibility that one or more member states will attach potentially onerous (or even unacceptable) conditions to opting back in. Furthermore, our negotiating stock will fall further – it already appears to be at an all-time low – and our potential to influence Treaty amendments will be hamstrung. It is even possible that opting back in will be refused altogether. Membership of Frontex, the EU’s border agency, was blocked by member states, as was membership of VIS, a common database of visa records. As the Centre for European Reform has pointed out, why should member states now acquiesce to British cherry-picking in policing and justice?
We live in a world where crime, especially serious organised crime and terrorism, is global in reach and impact. International cooperation in tackling it is widely accepted as essential. The standard of cross-border policing in Europe has been greatly improved because of the UK’s efforts and expertise as well as funding – the UK has invested £39m in setting up the European Criminal records Information System alone – so the decision to opt out should not be taken unless a conclusive case is made that clearly demonstrates the benefits to the public of disinvesting in cross-border collaboration.
At what point is someone going to say that the risk of being prevented from opting back in to those measures which are crucial to the nation’s security is simply too great. At the very least, diplomatic assurances that the UK will be able to swiftly opt back in to such measures should be secured from all member states prior to opting out. Failure to do so would be tantamount to gross negligence.