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Tory Push for EU Policing Cooperation Optout Harmful to British Security

30/04/2013 11:30 BST | Updated 29/06/2013 10:12 BST

The Abu Qatada saga demonstrates the challenging complexity of extraditing suspected criminals and terrorists through bilateral arrangements. Of course there are special features in that case and it concerns a non-EU country, but it still serves to highlight the sheer absurdity of the Conservatives' desire to pull out of the European Arrest Warrant. It is madness to want to replace the EAW, which facilitates speedy and streamlined extradition within Europe, with old-style cumbersome arrangements with our European partners involving complex negotiations and often ministerial involvement in individual cases.

London 21/7 attempted bomber Hussain Osman was back to face justice in Britain within a few weeks compared to the months or even years it used to take, and could take again if Europhobic Tories get their way. Teacher Jeremy Forrest who went off with his schoolgirl lover was back in the UK to face the music a mere 12 days after absconding to Bordeaux. The EAW does need reform, notably a proportionality test in order to stop trivial requests, and also stronger human rights safeguards to prevent miscarriages of justice like that suffered by my constituent Andrew Symeou; I am pleased to have been appointed by the European Parliament to produce a report on such necessary reforms.

The Tory case for exercising a 'block' opt out of a set of some 130 EU policing and criminal justice cooperation measures including the EAW, Europol and exchanges of criminal records took a serious hit this week when the House of Lords EU Committee in a unanimous cross-party report said that no convincing case had been made. The report makes crystal clear, on the basis of extensive and overwhelming expert evidence including from serving police officers, that an optout from vital crime-fighting measures would risk the safety of the British people.

Let's recall that all these laws were subject at the time of adoption to a requirement of unanimity, so if they were not right for the UK why were they not vetoed? The report rightly points out that Home Secretary Theresa May has failed to show that any of these measures are actually harmful. Sure, some are not very useful, others are defunct, but they can either be left to wither or - perhaps better - we could persuade Brussels and other EU countries to do an audit and repeal them sooner rather than later.

The UK could try to re-participate in some individual measures but that is fraught with risk as it needs agreement in Brussels in what could be complicated and even costly negotiations. Meanwhile hardened criminals would hardly believe their luck as the Conservative party which once claimed to stand for 'law and order' left our police out of the loop on tackling cross-border organised crime. It seems incredible that the Tories seem determined to press ahead with this risky policy of pulling out when there are no substantive legal or operational reasons to do so.

It is one thing for a Tory-led government to validly take on the police on issues of efficiency and productivity. But when they are told by numerous law enforcement agencies that the optout would damage Britain's security, such as the Association of Chief Police Officers' recent warning that the UK becoming a 'safe haven' for foreign criminals, it is surely time to defer to police expertise. Similarly, the 13 senior former UK security officials who sent a letter to the government warning that opting out of EU cooperation would damage UK national security.

The idea that the European Commission and Court are going to mount some kind of takeover of the common law is another Tory Eurosceptic fallacy swiftly despatched by their Lordships. Not only did they correctly identify that the EU Court is careful to respect the features of national legal systems, but they emphasised the important role it could play, alongside national courts, in safeguarding the rights of citizens and upholding the rule of law.

It is crucial for the fight against crime that we continue to work with our European partners. I hope that this powerful Lords report will halt in its tracks the Tory plan for the UK to pull out of essential European cooperation against criminals and terrorists. Theresa May needs to listen to senior police officers, not her baying backbenchers, and drop these plans that would undermine our police and benefit only the bad guys. British leadership on justice and security policies in the EU has been amply recognised. It would be extraordinary if the Tories were to prioritise ideological anti-European gesture politics over security, but if they insist on doing so they must be prepared to accept being justifiably labelled as soft on crime.

Baroness Sarah Ludford MEP is the British Liberal Democrat Party European justice and human rights spokeswoman and rapporteur for a report on the European Arrest Warrant.