12 years ago, European leaders reached a historic agreement on the European Arrest Warrant (EAW), streamlining a cumbersome and politicised extradition system in favour of judge-led procedures. Since then, the Euro-warrant has helped bring thousands of serious criminals and terrorists to justice, including one of the 2005 London bombers Hussain Osman.
Since 2009, hundreds of suspects have been extradited back to the UK to face charges using the EAW, including 63 for child sex offences, 105 for drug trafficking, 27 for rape and 44 for murder, while 4,000 suspects have been sent to other countries. Earlier this year one of Britain's most-wanted men, drug-trafficker Mark Lilley, was captured at his luxury villa in Spain, a country that was once a renowned safe haven for British criminals. He is the 51st in a list of most-wanted fugitives to be captured in recent years through cooperation between UK and Spanish police.
In fact, the EAW has become so integral to modern policing that the Association of Chief Police Officers describes it as a 'vital' tool in the fight against organised crime. That is why Liberal Democrats in government have fought hard in negotiations with our coalition partners to ensure the UK remains part of vital EU police and judicial cooperation including the EAW. We understand that in an era in which criminal gangs increasingly operate across borders, our police must have the tools required to bring them to justice.
Yet the Fresh Start group of Tory backbench MPs recently advocated withdrawing not only from the EAW, but from EU police and judicial cooperation altogether. The only 'fresh start' would in reality be for the thousands of criminals who would find it far easier to evade justice! For British law enforcement, it would be an unmitigated disaster. To pull out of the EAW and other similar measures would be to deprive our police of the tools they need to tackle crime in the 21st century.
The irony is, for years Britain led the way in putting in place the sort of greater cooperation in EU justice and home affairs that Tory backbenchers now absurdly portray as a threat to British interests. Take Europol, a hugely successful organisation - now headed by a Brit - which has coordinated dozens of major joint operations to dismantle international child abuse rings and human-trafficking gangs. Recently the head of the newly formed UK National Crime Agency said it was crucial that we remain part of Europol in order to have the capabilities required to crack down on serious organised crime. Yet UKIP and many Tories oppose the agency, allowing their Europhobia to take precedence over their claim to be tough on crime.
Of course, the threat of international crime and terrorism should not make us blind to the need to push up criminal justice standards across Europe, safeguard civil liberties, and remove flaws in the EAW. That is why I seized the opportunity to draft a report in the European Parliament to ensure that the use of the EAW is proportionate (no requests in respect of stolen piglets!) and respects fundamental rights. It is vital to learn from scandalous cases such as that of my constituent Andrew Symeou, who was unjustly kept in pre-trial detention for 15 months before his acquittal. The answer is not to abandon the EAW altogether, whinge from the sidelines and return to the bad old days of the 'Costa del Crime', but to do the hard but necessary work of reform.
At the European elections next May, voters will face a fundamental choice about what kind of country they want Britain to be. An inward, backward-looking country that pulls up the drawbridge on its allies in Europe and attempts to navigate the challenges of the 21st century alone. Or one that is willing to embrace international cooperation in the fight against organised crime and new threats such as cyber-attacks, human-trafficking and online fraud. Liberal Democrats, as the 'Party of In', are unambiguous about which side of the fence we sit. We are pro-Britain, pro-Europe and pro-reform.