UK Politics

Q&A: EU crime and justice opt-out

Police under an EU flag
Image caption The government wants to opt-out of all pre-Lisbon police and criminal justice matters

The UK is considering opting out of EU measures on crime and policing. Here is a guide to the issue:

What is the UK opt-out on crime and policing?

Before signing up to the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, the last Labour government negotiated an opt-out for Britain on 130 measures on cross-EU cooperation on crime and justice that had been agreed before the treaty came into force. The measures cover a range of areas but are designed to make it easier for police across the EU to cooperate and also to ensure fair treatment in different judicial systems for all EU citizens.

Why is it being discussed now?

Responsibility for policing EU laws in these areas will pass to the European Court of Justice from December 2014, after a five year transition period following the Lisbon Treaty. At this point, the UK either has to opt-in and accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice on all the 130 pre-Lisbon measures or pull out of them completely. If it chooses to opt out, it can, at a later date, try and opt in to individual measures on a case-by-case basis, but this will be subject to approval by the rest of the EU.

What does the government want to do?

In a statement to MPs on 15 October, Home Secretary Theresa May said current government thinking was to opt out of all pre-Lisbon police and criminal justice matters. She said they would then negotiate with the European Commission and other member states to opt back in to those individual measures "that it is in our national interest to rejoin".

What would be affected if Britain chose to opt-out?

The most high profile and contentious measure is the European Arrest Warrant, which has been used in a number of cases to bring suspects back to the UK. The warrant was used to extradite bomber Hussain Osman after he fled to Italy following attacks in London on 21 July 2005. More recently, it was used to bring back teacher Jeremy Forrest who faces charges of child abduction after travelling to France with a 15-year-old pupil. However, critics say the warrant has led to the unfair trials of Britons abroad. Cases such as Andrew Symeou who was extradited to Greece for murder but acquitted after spending four years in jail awaiting trial and Edmond Arapi who was wrongly convicted of murder by an Italian court, despite not being in the country at the time of the murder are often cited. Some say the warrant is unnecessary because a previous legal agreement already allows extradition to Europe. Other measures covered by the opt-out are the laws that establish the EU's judicial and policing organisations Europol and Eurojust and shared databases of criminals and DNA between member states.

Do the Conservative and Liberal Democrats agree?

The issue could lead to tensions between the coalition partners. In their last manifesto, the Conservatives opposed the arrest warrant but the Lib Dems said they wanted to keep it and the UK's membership of Europol and Eurojust. Many Conservatives see the opt-out as a first step towards repatriating powers to the UK and rebalancing the UK's relationship with Brussels. In February this year, 102 Tory MPs signed a letter to the Daily Telegraph calling for the full opt-out - and some have since called for there to be no opting back in. However, the Lib Dems are expected to push for the readoption of the European Arrest Warrant and renewed participation in EU-wide policing bodies.

What does Labour say?

It was under the Labour government that the opt-out was originally negotiated, but shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has stressed the importance of the European Arrest Warrant in fighting crime and securing justice for victims. If the government chooses to opt out of all the measures, Labour wants it to set out clearly how it would replace the European Arrest Warrant and say whether it would, in the future, choose to opt back in to the system.

What does the legal profession think about the opt-out?

The Law Societies of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have jointly expressed concerns about a wholesale opt-out and, along with the Bar Council, want a full public consultation before the government makes a decision. The Bar Council said the loss of the European Arrest Warrant "would directly threaten law and order in the UK". In August, a number of former police and intelligence chiefs wrote to the prime minister and deputy prime minister urging them not to opt out. They said getting rid of the arrest warrant would be "entirely self-defeating".

What happens next?

A number of parliamentary committees are expected to scrutinise what opting out will mean for the UK and provide recommendations to the government. There will also be a vote in both Houses of Parliament, although exactly when this will take place has yet to be decided, with a clearer timetable expected in the new year. The final decision on what the UK does has to be taken by 31 May 2014.

More on this story