The UK is to abandon a crucial tool used to speed up the transfer of criminals across borders with other European countries.
Acting against the warnings of senior law enforcement officials, the government said it would not be seeking to participate in the European arrest warrant (EAW) as part of the future relationship with the European Union.
In a document setting out the UK’s approach to negotiations with the EU, the government said: “The agreement should instead provide for fast-track extradition arrangements, based on the EU’s surrender agreement with Norway and Iceland which came into force in 2019, but with appropriate further safeguards for individuals beyond those in the European arrest warrant.”
The UK’s loss of the EAW became inevitable after Brexit; the treaty only applies to EU member states.
One police source stressed this was not the UK withdrawing from the European arrest warrant but the UK “accepting that it can no longer be in it after the EU made clear it could not be part of it unless it accepted freedom of movement and the jurisdiction of the European court of justice”.
“What you are seeing in the text is something that both sides have agreed they can get – which is the Iceland deal. This is European arrest warrant lite,” said the source.
One complication is that some EU member states, such as Germany, have a constitutional bar against extraditing their nationals to non-EU countries. “Their view is if they can’t get justice at home, they are not going to get it anywhere else,” said the source.
When Britain left the EU on 31 January, three EU countries – Germany, Austria and Slovenia – announced they would stop surrendering their nationals to British law enforcement. Since 2009, there have been six people from those countries extradited to the UK. Conversely it could mean the UK becomes a safe haven for EU criminals.
Under the current arrangements, police forces, prosecutors and the National Crime Agency can apply for an EAW to effect a fast extradition of a criminal suspect from any EU member state, and likewise EU countries can apply to the UK to return fugitives. The European commission has previously claimed that average extradition times have been reduced from one year to less than two months through the use of the EAW.
From 2009/2010 to 2017/2018, the UK returned 9,853 EU nationals to their home states to face justice, and brought back 1,271 Britons over the same period.
Before the arrest warrant existed it took 10 years to extradite Rachid Ramda from Britain to France over his role in the 1995 Paris metro bombing. In 2005 it took just 56 days to bring the failed 21/7 London tube bomber Hussain Osman back from Italy to London using an arrest warrant.
Yvette Cooper MP, the chair of the home affairs select committee, said: “The government’s new proposals for security cooperation with the EU are extremely worrying.
“The announcement today made it plain that the UK is no longer seeking the kind of access to vital EU databases and security tools that would replicate our existing relationship, despite its own analysis stating repeatedly that failing to participate in existing tools would mean a serious loss of capability with damaging consequences for public safety.
“The government’s new red lines make it exceedingly difficult for anything more than the standard third-country relationship with the EU on security cooperation to be negotiated. That is not good enough and marks a huge scaling back in ambition.
“The government only have six months before our existing security arrangements run out but the committee was told that it could take up to 18 months to ratify a new security treaty and possibly much longer for new extradition arrangements to replace the European arrest warrant.
“It is completely astounding that the government says that these new plans will make the country safer when we have been told time and time again by senior police officers and security experts that the opposite is true.”
After the EU referendum, the then NCA deputy director general, David Armond, said losing the EAW would be a “tricky” issue.
“If we can’t stay in that we’ve got to negotiate a series of new treaties with overseas territories about what extradition will look like,” he said.
Stephen Doughty, a Labour MP and member of the home affairs select committee, said: “It is extraordinary that the government is willing to put the security and safety of our citizens at risk – all in the name of ideological obsession – by pulling out of the European arrest warrant.
“It is also deeply irresponsible to threaten to walk away from talks in June – which would not only threaten our economy, but also our safety and security. What price are they willing to pay? Or is it all an idle threat?”
The Brexit spokesman for the the National Police Chiefs’ Council, the deputy assistant commissioner Richard Martin, said: “Throughout the Brexit process police have been clear that we want to retain the capabilities of the EU tools we currently use and that remains the case.
“We will continue to work with the government and EU partners in support of a deal that maintains close cooperation – in the interests of all UK and European citizens.”
Lawmakers have previously warned that any delay in agreeing an extradition treaty could result in a return to criminals hiding out on the “Costa del Crime” to escape justice. The EU extradition treaty with Norway and Iceland took 13 years to enforce after it was signed in 2006, although both sides will want a post-Brexit agreement in place much faster.
The UK is not seeking membership of Eurojust, an EU agency that works to coordinate investigations and prosecutions between EU member states when dealing with cross-border crime, the future relationship dossier says.
In addition, the government says it wants access to information-sharing and exchange systems “similar” to those in place now, but stops short of seeking ongoing access to current arrangements including the Schengen information system II (SIS II), the real-time alert mechanism for fugitives, the European criminal records information system (ECRIS) and the Prum system used for DNA exchanges.
The Home Office said the safety and security of UK citizens is the government’s “top priority” and the alternative arrangements it was seeking would include greater safeguards than those within the European Arrest Warrant.
“The UK will continue to be one of the safest countries in the world,” a spokesperson said.