The UK has rightly opted out of all the criminal justice measures of the EU. Conservative opposition to centralising treaties in the last decade did at least persuade Labour to give the UK the option to keep out of the EU’s growing role in criminal justice. I suspect Labour had no intention of using the opt out, and thought by now the public would have forgotten or not mind if we transferred more and more of our power over the criminal law to Brussels. Instead the coalition has sensibly opted out of all the measures, to restore the position to that prevailing under previous Conservative governments who always kept criminal justice out of EU control and outside the Treaties.
Now there is a debate about whether the UK should opt back in to some of these measures. The biggest opt in proposed is to the European Arrest Warrant. Many Conservative MPs are against this idea. Labour and the Lib Dems are enthusiastic to opt in, along with some Conservative Ministers.
Those of us who oppose the measure have put forward three important worries about the operation of the Arrest Warrant. The first is its use for less important offences, when we were assured by Labour that this was primarily for tackling terrorism, murder and other very serious crimes. The second is the absence of good standards over detention and trial in some other EU countries who can use the European Arrest Warrant against UK citizens. The third is the ability of another country to use a Warrant to extradite a UK citizen for an alleged crime, where their conduct is not a crime under UK law.
The government has agreed with our three detailed complaints, and has said it has now taken action in UK law to prevent these abuses of the Warrant. UK courts are now directed by UK law not to allow a Warrant for minor offences, and not to permit one if the matter is not a crime in the UK. They think the position on rights elsewhere has been improved. So, say some Ministers, we should now be willing to vote for this measure. They claim it helps the UK deal with violent and serious criminals who exit the UK for an EU country.
Some of us still have doubts about this device. Whilst UK law and courts may currently be able to limit the use of the Arrest Warrant, they will not be able to limit its use affecting UK citizens outside the UK. Once you go back under the EU controls, the ECJ could always settle a case against the UK which could then limit or prevent the UK law applying in the way Ministers intend. We supported the Conservative policy of not allowing criminal justice authority to pass from Westminster to Brussels for good reasons. Controlling your own criminal justice system and being able to change the criminal law is an important part of an independent democratic country.
Labour and Lib Dems respond by saying we need this warrant to keep us safe, as it is the way to bring back nasty criminals who have escaped our country so they can stand trial and be imprisoned if guilty. We have arrangements with most other countries in the world to let this happen through Extradition treaties. These treaties do not place our criminal justice system under foreign control but allow co-operation to bring suspects back for trial. We have long had good co-operative policing arrangements with EU and non EU countries when seeking to track down criminals. That is what we would prefer for our dealings with the EU as we do for Switzerland or the USA.