As published in The Sunday Times:
The European arrest warrant leaves Britain in handcuffs
When Theresa May presents the case for signing up to the European arrest warrant (EAW) to the House of Commons tomorrow, she will undoubtedly repeat her claim that failing to sign up will turn Britain into a honeypot for terrorists, paedophiles and gangsters.
It is a claim that is designed to create blood-curdling headlines, but a moment’s thought demonstrates that it is patently untrue. Such criminals would flee here only if they thought that it would enable them to escape justice at home. In fact, either in or out of the European arrest warrant we are perfectly capable of deporting criminals to face justice in their home country. That is a matter of our law and our courts and does not require an international treaty to make it happen. In reality, European law has made deportation harder, not easier.
When justice is served quickly, it turns too often into injustice. The consideration of any criminal allegation should always be calm, measured and cautious — the price of miscarriages is simply too great. As William Blackstone’s famous legal formula perfectly expresses: “It is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” With the EAW the test is even simpler: it is better to take a few weeks longer to return a terrorist to British justice than to take three years longer to recover a British citizen from a foreign injustice.
The EAW has resulted in far too many miscarriages of justice, too many instances of innocent men and women being torn from their families, subjected to terrible conditions and shorn of the rightful protections and standards of the British justice system.
Perhaps the most well-known example is that of Andrew Symeou, who was extradited to Greece in 2009 for a crime he did not commit, based on witness statements that were extracted through police coercion. Such evidence would have been dismissed by a British court before it even came to trial, but because of the EAW system Symeou spent a year in a Greek prison with rapists and murderers while awaiting trial. The knowledge that he was innocent would have been of little comfort.
More recently, there was further overzealous use of the EAW when the King family were persecuted by Hampshire police. Pressured by the media furore surrounding Ashya King’s disappearance from a Southampton hospital, an EAW was issued for the Kings. Ashya’s parents were arrested at his hospital bedside in Spain, where they had taken him for a prototype cancer treatment.
Innocent young men incarcerated in appalling conditions and loving parents separated from their children: that is the injustice of the EAW.
The EAW has also proved to be absurdly lopsided, with the UK surrendering 4,005 people between 2009 and 2013, while bringing 507 people back to the UK. This imbalance is particularly severe between specific countries. In that same period the UK surrendered 2,404 people to Poland, while bringing only 24 back.
These are not only terrorists and murderers being extradited. In fact, during that same period the UK has not brought a single terrorist back to this country under an EAW — a concern, given that the EAW was originally proposed as an anti-terror measure. The vast majority of EAWs are issued for petty fraud and theft. Yes, these are crimes, but they are hardly worthy of such draconian punishment.
The warnings that Britain will become a safe haven for criminals is an example of the sort of scaremongering that has become far too prevalent in the debates on justice and anti-terrorism measures. The UK was certainly no safe haven prior to the introduction of the EAW. And proposed alternatives to the EAW will be just as much of a deterrent to foreign criminals. The argument against the EAW is not a Eurosceptic argument about European integration, although there are good arguments against the integration of such disparate criminal justice systems. This is a question of justice, of whether we are willing to countenance the loss of crucial and hard-won judicial safeguards.
That being said, when the government is supposedly trying to negotiate a new deal with Europe it seems very strange to throw away such an enormous negotiating chip as this, particularly one with such a flawed policy.
Of course nations should share information on criminals and co-operate in bringing people to justice. But the criminal justice systems throughout Europe are simply too varied, in outlook and standards, to work within a single, rigid framework. The idea that, through mutual recognition, our courts must give the same authority to a foreign judicial process as to our domestic ones is, as noted by our lord chief justice, Lord Thomas, “unworkable”. One size does not fit all.