European arrest warrant: Let’s have British justice – not the EU’s

Theresa May is wrong to fear that the UK could be a haven for criminals

The Home Secretary was quoted as believing that Britain would become a “honeypot” for criminals unless we sign up to the European Arrest Warrant and a slew of other EU crime and policing regulations. Well, far from it. In reality, remaining outside Brussels’s drive towards a single EU justice system would protect the liberty of our citizens, re-focus our law enforcement relationship with the EU on operational cooperation, and guarantee UK democratic control over such sensitive policy.

Take the European Arrest Warrant (EAW). The Ashya King case shows how easily it can be misused. When the Kings sought treatment abroad for their five-year old son’s brain tumour, they were subject to an EAW, then jailed in a Spanish cell, leaving Ashya alone in a Malaga hospital. All because they didn’t fill in the right forms at Southampton hospital.

Hampshire police issued the EAW for “criminal neglect” - but had insufficient evidence to back it up. Police later conceded they never intended to prosecute. The EAW was just a convenient tool to track the Kings down. So much for the precious British principle of innocent until proven guilty. If anyone was responsible for criminal neglect, it was the British state. And that’s Hampshire police, a well-regarded UK force. Many innocent Britons have been subject to devastating abuse at the hands of incompetent or even corrupt European authorities, from Italy to Hungary.

The scatter-gun approach magnifies that risk. In 2012/13, Britain received 6,293 EAWs – almost triple the 2007 level. We get a third of all EAWs, with one European national surrendered for every nine Britons. So, UK-EU extradition relations are far more lop-sided than the much-criticised US treaty.

Sure, extradition is vital to pursue criminals. But fast-track EAWs, with scant safeguards, hang too many innocent people out to dry. Senior extradition judge Lord Justice Thomas lambasted the regime as systematically “unworkable”. The Government introduced some extra checks into UK law. But, as Fair Trials International vouch, they won’t stop the injustices. Ministers concede that  there’s no appetite in Brussels for reforming the EU rules. So if we want to shield the innocent, we have to stay outside the EAW, and agree a new extradition treaty with proper safeguards. We could temporarily retain the EAW whilst that treaty is negotiated.

Given the unequal flow of requests, why would EU partners refuse? Even if they did, we could fall back on longstanding Council of Europe extradition conventions, so no dangerous criminals escape justice. There are gaps, for certain tax crimes or where national statutes of limitation apply. But, none threatens public safety. Equally, there’s no good reason fugitive Britons – or European nationals - aren’t just deported straight home, instead of relying on extradition which was designed for governments pursuing foreign criminals. So, suggestions that 21/7 bomber Hussain Osman, or Jeremy Forrest who abducted a schoolgirl, would go free are irresponsible scaremongering. True, some countries have constitutional bars on extraditing their citizens – but is that really a reason for Britain to abandon safeguards protecting her own?

Beyond extradition, the Prüm data-sharing scheme would give European authorities access to our fingerprints, DNA and car registration details, including those not suspected of any crime. We risk more cases, like Peter Hamking, the bartender from Liverpool, wrongly arrested for murder based on a botched DNA match. Yes, we should share data on criminals. But, Prüm threatens all our privacy.

Few of the 130 criminal justice measures add value to UK law enforcement – even the police only argue for Britain to opt back into 13.  The EU Commission is distracted by dreams of its own justice system led by an EU Justice Minister. It is fixated on harmonising laws, and trying to turn Europol and Eurojust – useful bodies for bringing national police and prosecutors together – into EU law enforcement arms, taking power from national authorities. Britain has a theoretical opt-out from its latest creation, an EU Public Prosecutor. But leading QC Jonathan Fisher has spelt out how useless it would be in practice.

Next, there’s the mission creep of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). It has already ripped up the UK’s opt-out from the EU Charter of Fundamental rights, agreed by Tony Blair. What’s the point in a UK Supreme Court, if we now hand the ECJ the last word over British criminal justice? More fundamentally, if we’re not joining the EU on its path towards a single justice system, surely it makes sense to step back now, as we’re entitled to under the Lisbon Treaty.

Would that harm UK law enforcement? Hardly. All this EU regulation didn’t ensure that Latvian authorities tipped off UK police that the convicted murderer Arnis Zalkans had moved here. He’s now the prime suspect in the murder of schoolgirl, Alice Gross.  Britain’s most successful law enforcement relationships – like the Strategic Alliance with the US, New Zealand, Canada and Australia to counter organised crime – focus on operations, not sacrificing democratic control. There are EU precedents for more flexible cooperation. Britain isn’t a member of Frontex, the EU external borders agency, but cooperates as a partner. Former Executive Director Ilkka Laiten says it makes no operational difference.    

The Fresh Start Project, uniting Conservative MPs campaigning for renegotiation of Britain’s EU relationship, wants the Government to stay out of all 130 measures, and negotiate bilateral arrangements instead. This could be done with the EU as a whole, not 27 different governments – the EU already has 24 justice and home affairs treaties with other countries. That would boost cooperation, without eroding UK democratic accountability.

Repatriating powers over crime and policing is sound policy and also sensible politics. Conservatives would go into the 2015 election not just promising EU renegotiation, but already delivering it. For a public weary of all politicians’ promises, whether it’s defending our citizens from injustice or preserving the democratic prerogatives of Parliament, it’s deeds not words that count.

Dominic Raab is a Conservative MP

Comments