Open Europe Blog

Yesterday’s news that a British man has been served with a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) in a high profile case he was cleared of by a Portuguese court in 1995 has again raised the issue of the malfunctioning European Arrest Warrant (EAW).

The problems with the EAW are well documented and mostly flow from the flawed assumption that all European justice systems are broadly of the same quality and tradition – the reality is that they differ – as well as an absence of civil liberties checks and a proportionality principle, some hand down better justice than others.

That being the case, there is a need for stronger safeguards before the UK hands over its own citizens to other countries. Reform has been spoken of for years (the need for it even admitted by the European Commission) so why the muted British response? As with much of the Government’s programme it comes down to internal Coalition horse-trading. Here is how the parties stack up:

Conservatives:

  • As a backbench MP, David Cameron described the EAW “highly objectionable”:

“I find the European arrest warrant highly objectionable because of the problem of dual criminality… let us be clear about what it means. One of our constituents goes to Spain on holiday, commits an alleged offence, and returns home. All that is necessary for him or her to return is that the warrant is correctly filled out… and that a district judge in the UK sees the warrant and judges that the offence falls into one of the 32 categories. At no time is it asked whether the offence is a crime in this country.”

  • 102 Conservative MPs backed the conclusions of Open Europe’s recent report which argued for the block repatriation of EU powers on crime and policing, with the option of opting back in to selected measures.
  • Conservative MPs and MEPs have long campaigned for reform of the EAW. Conservative MPs, including David Cameron, voted against the EAW in the House of Commons and made EAW-reform a part of their last European Parliament Election Campaign saying “Conservative MEPs will uphold civil rights, and will work to avoid a repeat of the lack of safeguards in the European Arrest Warrant.”
Liberal Democrats:
The issue of the EAW cuts across two Liberal Democrat core beliefs; a commitment to European co-operation and Civil Liberties.
  • Nick Clegg recently defended the EAW as “indispensable” though also admitting that it needed reform.
  • Liberal Democrat MEPs helped to shape the EAW in the European Parliament; Sir Graham Watson MEP was the Parliament’s rapporteur (Nich Clegg and Chris Huhne were both MEPs at the time)
  • Ed Davey, now a Business Minister (then Lid Dem Europe’s spokesman) was keen on the EAW at the time of the Lisbon Treaty debates, arguing the Conservatives wished to create a “Costa del Crime”.
  • Curiously Nick Clegg has also championed reform of other extradition arrangements, such as the US/UK extradition treaty calling it “lopsided and unfair“.
  • In fairness, Lib Dems have also called for reform of the EAW, with MEP Baroness Ludford highlightingd the EAW’s problems (she is also a patron of Fair Trials International).
So what will happen when a decision is forced on the Coalition in 2014?
As we have highlighted in a recent report, under the Lisbon Treaty, the UK will have to decide by 2014 whether to accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) over the EAW and 130 other EU Crime and Policing measures. At this point (or preferably before) the Coalition will have to decide whether it wants the ECJ to have permanent jurisdiction over an unreformed EAW or leave the EAW altogether.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have long held opposing views on the EAW that will be difficult to climb down from and make the collective decision very tough. In the end it is likely the loudest voice will prevail – and this could well turn into a loud and noise debate.

But perhaps there is another way forwards. There is a growing consensus that the EAW and extradition laws generally need to be reformed, something the Liberal Democrats recognise with regards to the UK/US extradition treaty when the wider issue of Europe is not at stake. It should therefore be possible to find a middle ground. This would be for the Coalition to opt out of ECJ jurisdiction over the unreformed EAW and argue for reform in order to make it possible to rejoin it later. For this to happen it would be best to make the decision now in order that the substantive negotiation is completed in time for 2014.

Internal coalition disagreements aside, surely this is an area where all sides stand to gain from EU reform?
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