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Safer Borders? Why Brexit May Be Good News to European Criminals

  • U.K. leaving EU may exclude it from European Arrest Warrant
  • Warrants had transformed speed of extradition over last decade

Leaving the European Union would stop innocent British citizens from languishing in foreign prisons, U.K. politicians claimed as they campaigned for Brexit. The reality is it may also make it harder to extradite criminals to stand trial in the country.

The EU has used the European Arrest Warrant -- valid through the 28-nation bloc -- to streamline extradition procedures since 2004, and the results are tangible. Before EAWs, fewer than 60 people a year were sent by the U.K. to other countries to face criminal charges. Since then, more than 7,000 have been expelled to EU member states alone and 1,000 brought back to face trial, according to data from the U.K. National Crime Agency.

The June 23 vote to leave the EU will mean the U.K. won’t be a party to the rules underpinning the EAW once it completes the Brexit process. If the government isn’t able to negotiate a similar deal, it could have a big effect on its ability to bring criminals to justice.

"Brexit leaves our extradition arrangements with Europe in a dangerously uncertain position," senior London trial lawyer Hugo Keith said. Without the EAW "the U.K. will have to negotiate new extradition arrangements with the whole of the rest of the European Union, which are likely to be slower and less effective."

Speed

The EAW was introduced in 2002 and enacted in the U.K. in 2004. Once issued, pending certain barriers, a country must arrest and transfer the target of a warrant to the requesting territory. The key advantage is speed -- extradition under a EAW takes an average of three months compared with 10 months for a non-EU jurisdiction, according to U.K. government statistics from 2013.

Preserving the benefits of the EAW is likely to be a priority of new Prime Minister Theresa May, a champion of the warrants. May has previously said the EAW was a "vital" tool to stop foreign criminals from coming to Britain.

"Extradition is an area that May has shown a clear interest in. She has made no secret of the fact that she views the EAW as an important national security measure that protects the U.K. from serious criminals,” said Rebecca Niblock, a London lawyer at Kingsley Napley. “U.K. negotiations on criminal justice procedures must be a priority."

The ability of the EAW to speed up the extradition process has been a boon to the prosecution of terror cases.

10-Year Mission

Hussain Osman, who failed to set off a London bomb in a second round of attacks in July 2005, was convicted in the U.K. after being extradited from Italy in less than eight weeks. Prior to the adoption of the warrants, it took nearly 10 years for the U.K. to get permission to send Algerian Rachid Ramda to France, where he was wanted by authorities over the 1995 Paris Metro bombing.

The system hasn’t been without its flaws though. Andrew Symeou, who was extradited to Greece in 2009 to face charges in relation to a death in a nightclub, spent 11 months in a Greek jail before he was cleared in 2011.

"I don’t buy that we’re safer with the European Arrest Warrant," said politician Nigel Farage, speaking at an event hosted by think tank Bruges Group during the Brexit campaign. "Any individual is then liable to be left rotting in a foreign prison without facing a proper charge."

More Scrutiny

The U.K. has learned from these cases and tried to make changes, with more scrutiny of requests. EU member states must now show they’re ready to charge an individual or, that the person’s absence is the reason they’re unable to charge, to prevent people being extradited and kept in custody for months.

In light of the changes that have been made in recent years, it’s unlikely the U.K. would want to overhaul the whole process if it can be avoided, according to Edward Grange, a lawyer at Corker Binning in London.

"There has been a lot of investment in both time and money in seeking to improve the operation of the EAW over the last decade," Grange said. "The possibility of going back to square one would be unwelcome by many."

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