What has happened this week?
On 10th November, MPs were expecting to vote on whether to opt back in to 35 European justice measures, including the European Arrest Warrant (EAW). However, the wording of the motion meant that only 11 measures were individually voted on, and the EAW was not amongst them. The Labour Party are now planning to use their next opposition day, 19th November, to timetable a discussion and vote on the EAW in Parliament.
What is the EAW?
The European Arrest Warrant obliges EU member states to arrest and surrender suspects for the purposes of being prosecuted, sentenced or to serve a sentence that has already been imposed. It cuts through the lengthy administration procedures normally required for extradition. The Crown Prosecution website carries full details of the EAW and extradition between EU member states.
Why did the UK opt out of EU justice measures in the first place?
In July 2013, Home Secretary Theresa May announced Britain would be exercising its opt-out in order to preserve national sovereignty in criminal justice matters. However, it was always the plan to opt back in to individual measures deemed necessary to maintain national security. She delivered a detailed statement which concludes that the government ‘must strike the right balance between supporting law enforcement and protecting our traditional liberties’. This opt-out takes effect across 130 measures on 1st December, so if Britain wants to opt back in to any of the individual measures, it must decide to do so by the end of this month.
Why is the EAW such a controversial measure?
The decision not to include an individual vote on the EAW on 10th November has been widely criticised, and for many MPs it is the most important individual measure. If we opt in, then the final say on whether a British national can be processed in the justice system of another member state will lie with the European Court of Justice, not with the UK. If we opt out, then processing criminals who are in another member state will go back to the lengthier extradition processes that were in place before the EAW came into force in 2004. It could also potentially result in fewer criminals being brought to justice, as it is more difficult for suspects to evade arrest when countries are working together.
What happens next?
If Labour manage to use their opposition day on 19th November to successfully debate the EAW, and a vote on opting in receives the backing of the majority of Parliament, it would be a blow to the Conservatives on the eve of the Rochester and Strood by-election. UKIP will say it is another example of power being transferred from Britain to Europe, and they will look united on an area of policy which is currently divisive for the Conservative party. It is also a chance for Ed Milliband to show some leadership after a decidedly lacklustre few weeks. This is quickly becoming not just about how criminal suspects in EU member states should be processed, but about how strong the UK parties look in the lengthy run-up to the general election.