The UK should not miss this opportunity to exit the European Arrest Warrant

The UK should not miss this opportunity to exit the European Arrest Warrant

The UK has published its latest Brexit negotiating paper – a future partnership paper on security, law enforcement and criminal justice. This follows its paper on foreign policy, defence and development last week. In both papers, the message from the UK to the EU is clear – defence and security are a top priority for the UK, and ongoing cooperation in these areas is so important that it should be kept separate from the fray of the main negotiations.

To that end, the UK has proposed a new UK-EU security treaty, which would enshrine a high level of ongoing cooperation between the UK and the EU. Sections in the paper hint that this could be along the lines of an EEA-lite model, with a reference to the Schengen association agreements with EEA Iceland and Norway, which concern some issues of security but are outside the direct jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union.

The precise legal basis for any agreement will of course be subject to negotiation between the two sides, with the paper acknowledging that the EU’s existing arrangements for third party cooperation on security do not go as far as the UK wants. Nonetheless, the UK is being careful to avoid any suggestions that it is attempting to use security issues as leverage in the broader negotiations after Theresa May faced accusations around this following her Article 50 letter.

While the flurry of outrage at the time consisted of more than a little moral grandstanding from the EU, the reality is that security and defence are areas where Britain has no need to overplay its hand. The UK’s status as the pre-eminent military and intelligence power in Europe is not in doubt, and while European cooperation on these issues undoubtedly brings mutual benefits to both the UK and the EU, the UK’s closest alignment remains with NATO and the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence sharing community, along with the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

With the UK leaving more or less everything security-related on the table at this stage, the closeness of the future partnership will essentially come down to the extent to which the EU is prepared to create new legal arrangements for enhanced third party cooperation. The UK has indicated its willingness to continue as a full member of EU agencies including Europol and Eurojust, with the Government also leaving the door open to making payments to the EU for Europol membership. But while these bodies currently have association-type agreements with other countries such as the USA and Canada, full membership for a non-EU member would require a novel legal arrangement.

However, one area where the Government should not be seeking continued full participation is in the case of the European Arrest Warrant. Far from ruling it out, the paper leaves full EAW participation very much on the table from the UK’s perspective. Ultimately this would not be the best course for the UK to take going forward, as what advantages the EAW brings in terms of cross-border law enforcement are greatly outweighed by its disproportionate use and the way it undermines vital legal checks and balances in the UK.

The EAW was intended to specifically target serious organised crime and terrorism. Instead it has found prolific use as a blunt instrument by heavy-handed governments with widely varying standards of legal process. It has been invoked from crimes as trivial as piglet rustling or bicycle theft through to clear cases of mistaken identity and politically-motivated persecution which would never stand up in UK courts. It is far from obvious that the statistic quoted in the paper – that the UK extradited over 8,000 individuals using the EAW between 2004 and 2015 – is something to be proud of.

While the Government’s position remains that the EAW is an extremely useful operational tool, there is a clear case here for negotiating a new expedited extradition process with the EU which maintains an equivalent level of “operational capability” – the Government’s key objective in this area of the negotiations – ensuring that serious criminals and terrorists continue to be brought to justice as quickly as possible, but ending the indiscriminate or vexatious pursuit of petty criminals and political targets which the UK justice system has insufficient power to stop under existing arrangements.

In addition, the operational aspects of the EAW fall under the remit of the ECJ, while the EAW itself is the product of European Council Framework decisions, in which the UK will play no further part after Brexit. A streamlined bilateral extradition treaty would offer the chance to solve all of these problems without impinging on the UK’s operational capability in combating serious crime. And in a complex negotiation, it also has the added advantage of being far easier to agree with the EU, both politically and legally.

The mutual benefits of security cooperation are self-evident, and the UK’s desire to secure bespoke agreements to ensure it can continue as deeply as possible after Brexit is undoubtedly the right approach, as the EU will no doubt also acknowledge in due course. But the European Arrest Warrant is one piece of Brussels baggage that the UK should be more than happy to leave behind.