The European Arrest Warrant is flawed, but instead of walking away the UK should engage constructively and lead efforts to improve the system, says campaign group
The United Kingdom government's announcement
yesterday that it intends to opt-out of future involvement in European Union crime cooperation measures has received a mixed reaction, not least from the Conservatives' junior coalition partners the Liberal Democrats. Perhaps the most significant measure to be affected is the European Arrest Warrant, Europe's fast-track extradition system that was introduced in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to fight serious organised crime and terrorism in Europe.
The Lib Dems have long been proud to highlight their prominent role in the development of the arrest warrant and have been eager to champion its crucial role in combating cross-border crime. Although some Lib Dems have been willing to acknowledge that it does not always work as it should, others have, like proud parents, been unwilling to recognise its flaws. On the other hand, many Conservatives would be delighted with a withdrawal from the arrest warrant system as part of a general movement to repatriate powers from Europe.
Even leaving aside the divisive British politics on Europe, there are arguments for and against the EAW. The British police have made it clear that they need effective extradition arrangements to fight crime across Europe's increasingly open borders. They have valid concerns that withdrawing from the arrest warrant system could lead to long delays in processing British extradition requests as countries would prioritise EAWs.
On the other hand, the system is currently causing some serious cases of injustice. Every year Fair Trials International sees numerous cases where people are uprooted from their homes and families, often in relation to minor offences, to be sent abroad where they may be held for months or years awaiting trial.
One shocking case is that of Natalia Gorczowska, threatened with extradition to Poland and separation from her one-year-old son to serve a suspended sentence imposed six years earlier for possession of a small quantity of amphetamines for personal use. British courts were powerless to prevent her extradition under this no questions asked system, although thankfully in her case Poland did eventually agree to withdraw the warrant.
Calls for reform of the hastily passed laws behind the EAW system have grown steadily over the past two years. The European Commission has expressed concern about the way it is being used for minor crimes and a year ago members of the European Parliament voiced cross-party support for reform. Fair Trials International has long argued for safeguards against abuse and overuse: a proportionality test to prevent arrest warrants being issued for minor offences; safeguards against grave fundamental rights infringements, and an obligation to remove arrest warrants once extradition has been refused.
Rather than simply walking away, we hope that the UK will lead the calls for these simple reforms needed to protect against abuse and overuse. If it plays its cards right and engages constructively in a debate on reform of the EAW, the UK could well gain the support it would need from EU institutions and other member states.
Emily Smith is a policy officer at Fair Trials International