The Conservative Party has a tendency to froth at the mouth any time there is any mention of Europe. Such a tendency means that the Government is increasingly adopting policies that are designed to appease the worst of the backbench frothers – irrespective of whether the resulting impact on wider policy makes any sense at all.
Today the Home Secretary announced that the Government plans to opt out of 130 European Union measures on law and order. Or at least that was the spin put on the announcement, no doubt for the benefit of the frothers. What she actually said was:
“the Government’s current thinking is that we will opt out of all pre-Lisbon police and criminal justice measures and then negotiate with the Commission and other member states to opt back into those individual measures which it is in our national interest to rejoin. However, discussions are ongoing within government and therefore no formal notification will be given to the Council until we have reached agreement on the measures that we wish to opt back into.”
This convoluted wording reflects – just for a change – disagreements within the Coalition, but it also reflects the mess that will be created in the UK’s participation in Europe-wide cooperation on policing and crime fighting.
The Government’s intention would put at risk – amongst other things – the UK’s involvement in the European Arrest Warrant. It was the European Arrest Warrant that ensured that Hussain Osman who targeted a Hammersmith and City line train to Shepherd’s Bush in the failed 21/7 bombings was brought back from Italy so speedily to stand trial.
And as my colleague, Baroness Angela Smith, said in the Lords this afternoon:
“If the European arrest warrant had not been in place, what action would have been available to UK police in co-operating with their French counterparts to ensure that the French police were able to arrest Jeremy Forrest and ensure that he and Megan Stammers were returned to the UK in the same timescale? No one is suggesting that the European arrest warrant is perfect, but the independent Scott Baker report commissioned by the current Home Secretary strongly recommended keeping it. Yes, it could be improved and updated, and that very process is taking place now; it is being reformed. As a further example of this Statement being premature, the Government do not even know at this stage what they would be opting out of.
The European arrest warrant is responsible for nearly 600 criminals being returned to the UK to face trial. It has allowed 4,000 citizens from other European countries to be sent back to their home country or another European country to face justice. In light of some of the Government’s briefing on this issue, your Lordships’ House might like to be aware that 94% of those sent back to other European countries to face trial under the European arrest warrant are foreign citizens.”
Earlier this year I was a signatory – along with a large number of much more distinguished former police chiefs and experts in criminology – to a letter sent to the Prime Minister on this threatened opt out. This spelt out why this international cooperation is potentially so important and said:
“This hard work is producing real results today. Take ‘Operation Rescue’: a 3 year operation launched by British police and coordinated by Europol across 30 countries that led to the discovery of the world’s largest online paedophile network, producing 184 arrests and the release of 230 children, including 60 in the UK. There are now hundreds of similar cross-border police and judicial success stories and Europe as a whole is a more hostile environment for serious organised criminals to operate, making Britain safer and more secure in the process.
This is an active agenda, and we must continuously improve our international policing and justice instruments as criminal activity develops and to ensure they remain necessary and proportionate. This includes the European Arrest Warrant, a totemic issue for some. The Warrant has been improved in recent years and further improvements may be needed. But scrapping it altogether would be entirely self-defeating. It has become an essential tool in the fight against cross-border organised crime delivering fast and effective justice across Europe. Since 2009 alone, the Warrant was used to return to the UK 71 foreign nationals over serious crimes including 4 robberies, 5 murders, 5 rapes, 6 child sexual offences, 9 cases of GBH and 14 cases of fraud.”
No doubt the Government, when it has finished appeasing the frothers, will say that these benefits will still be achieved because the UK can negotiate its way back into those areas of cooperation that it wants to keep.
However, each opt-in can only be negotiated after the opt-out has taken effect and requires the approval of all the other participating EU states before it can take effect. Such a process will take months or years and there is no guarantee of certainty that the UK will be allowed to opt back in.
And this is where the frothers come back into the equation. The European Union Act 2011 – another fine piece of constitutional tinkering by the Coalition – requires that a referendum be held throughout the United Kingdom on any proposed EU treaty or Treaty change which would transfer powers from the UK to the EU. And each opt-back-in would be a transfer of power from the UK to the EU, so triggering a referendum on each change.
The effect is that appeasing the frothers now will lead to a succession of EU referenda simply to return us to the position on cooperation with the rest of Europe that we are in today. And that really will please the frothers, but will seriously damage the UK’s ability to fight crime effectively.