After weeks of speculation, home secretary Theresa May confirmed the Conservative Party’s intention to go ahead with the block opt out of European Union crime and justice measures.
Despite warning calls from prominent organisations – including the Law Society – the Tory government plans to end UK cooperation on more than 130 measures aimed at tackling cross-border crimes like human trafficking, terrorism and organised crime.
Given the Tories (but not the Liberal Democrats) included a commitment in their manifesto during the previous election to limit the European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction over criminal matters, it feels almost inevitable we would come to this moment.
However, this ideological opposition ignores the basic, unavoidable facts that the UK has enjoyed hugely successful JHA cooperation which has seen credible results to UK citizens. This display of political opportunism has the potential of causing serious damage to UK security and safety and the story needs to be told before the House of Commons votes on the issue early next year.
The decision to trigger the opt-out will set the tone for a permanent reverse to years of progress made in the sensitive and important area of justice and home affairs cooperation with other European countries.
As the single market and free movement has become a reality, so too has the increase in cross-border crimes. Drug trafficking, human trafficking, illegal immigration and terrorism are all crimes that now operate beyond national boundaries.
It is exactly these types of cross-border issues EU justice and home affairs policy aims to prevent. Even in the past two years we have seen the UK sign up to EU legislation on protecting victims of crime, combating human trafficking and protecting citizens’ rights to data protection. In addition to this, and even more worrying, a decision to trigger the opt-out could pose a threat to national security as the UK would no longer be able to use agencies, shared databases, funding and instruments in law enforcement which the UK police force depend on so regularly to protect citizens.
Over the past weeks we have seen most of the Eurosceptics pointing towards failings of the European Arrest Warrant, EAW, as adequate reasoning for triggering the block opt-out. However, this in itself is insufficient justification given there is a general consensus the EAW needs to be reformed rather than ditched altogether. Whilst recognising procedural rights for defending need strengthening in the current EAW framework, we should also recognise the direct benefits it has brought to the UK justice system – including a reduction in extradition time from several months to an average of 48 hours.
The UK has been at the forefront of judicial and police cooperation at an EU level ensuring the adoption of the necessary tools to fight crimes that cannot be efficiently prosecuted at national level. It is for this reason we need to avoid this opt-out so the UK can improve and reform existing legislation and add its expertise to future measures.
In the coming months, Cameron’s “veto moment” must be assessed for whether it is truly in the interest of the British people or is designed to meet the political needs of the Conservative Party.