There are no magic formulae or statistics to definitively answer the question of our security within the European Union (EU), but I base my opinion on the years of my career spent working with experts at the top of their game, all of them coming to the same conclusion – that in a globalised world, being a member of the EU gives us another important tool in the fight against serious crime and terrorism. My experience comes from my time as a UK Home Office Minister in the 1990s, and as the Conservative spokesman in Justice and Security issues in the European Parliament for over 10 years. Being a lawyer also gives me insight and understanding of how the vital decisions that save lives and protect us and our families are arrived at.
In our membership of the EU, it is security where the UK really leads from the front yet, we also enjoy and can exercise a “watertight” opt-out on all major decisions related to criminal law, justice and immigration matters. We “have our cake but also eat it” – only participating in laws that give real added value for the safety and security of the British public.
So what does the EU do for our security, and why is it so necessary for us to remain members of the “club”?
Well, to start with, the much-maligned European Arrest Warrant (EAW) helps us to catch criminals sometimes in a matter of days, rather than what used to take years. Extradition from other European states has been cut from an average of 18 months to just 8-12 weeks. The EAW has so far helped us catch the Mumbai bombers, as well as a number of murderers and paedophiles; notably, it brought murderer Jeremy Forest back to the UK from France in just a few days.
You may hear silly examples from our opponents of the person who didn’t pay for petrol, or the person who stole a pig, having an arrest warrant issued against them. These are of course hugely regrettable anomalies and possible miscarriages of justice, but they were a few exceptions in a pool of thousands who have been effectively brought to justice for very serious crimes. And with our involvement, and partly at our behest, the European Commission has now put in place essential reforms to the EAW to ensure a proportionality test in each country, subject to a nationally controlled judicial decision.
When the terrible terrorist attacks took place in Paris and Brussels, it was only a few hours before European Joint Investigation Teams (JIT) of police and intelligence agencies were set up to offer assistance and expertise. As the proud author of the JIT legislation, I was delighted to see it operating effectively.
The newly adopted European Passenger Name Records agreement, which I also authored, means all EU countries must now collect and share basic passenger data with law enforcement authorities to catch terrorists and major criminals, including those who traffic in drugs, children, and individuals returning from fighting in Syria. I was particularly pleased to hear Sir John Sawers, the former head of MI6, citing this new agreement as a clear example of the importance of EU agencies working together in a way which, on our own, would be impossible.
And those who argue freedom of movement brings criminals to the UK, with no ability to remove them, are just wrong. They have obviously not bothered to check things out before pronouncing on the matter. The European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS) is a European-wide database, which exchanges information on all previously convicted persons in the EU, and allows for criminal background checks by employers for people working with the vulnerable or children. The reform of this measure, which I am leading on in the European Parliament, will now extend this exchange of information to non-EU nationals – but so far, ECRIS has already proved very useful in protecting our safety and security, and without it we would be much more at risk, both from external as well as internal criminals. Of course, under our exemptions and opt-outs, the UK also has the right in any event to refuse entry and remove any person who is a threat to public or national security.
Being members of the EU also gives us access to some of the most sophisticated databases, critical for the fight against crime today. Membership of the Schengen Information System, the Visa Information System, Prum, PNR, and EUROPOL have given us the greatest advantage we could ever have at our fingertips, with information also shared between the EU and our allies in the United States, Canada, Australia.
It is, of course, correct that if we left the EU, some bilateral agreements might deliver similar outcomes – but bilateral agreements, as we know from history, suffer two fatal flaws: speed and loopholes. Law enforcement authorities are – more than ever in the 21st Century – needing a complete picture in real time. Trading an expedient, ever-improving and efficient system for one which is slower and more bureaucratic puts us at a disadvantage in time-sensitive security situations. Major criminals and terrorists use technology and fast transport and don’t hang around to allow the authorities too much time.
Those that advocate our leaving the EU have totally unsupportable expectations that European nations and countries around the world will be queuing up to do a deal with us on better terms when we have left. Experience confirms otherwise. Denmark recently opted out of all EU Justice and Home Affairs measures, yet now colleagues who actually campaigned for this decision are desperately looking for ways to participate in EUROPOL, and to reconnect with important EU anti terror agreements. Their noses are pressed up against the window as they are correctly told that it could be anything from two to 10 years to reach any sort of simple cooperation agreement, and one which will never put them on equal terms, with no voting rights or say on its content or future direction or content.
Those who say that leaving the EU will mean we won’t have to change our own domestic laws to suit the EU should talk to the United States. In order to exchange data with the European Union for the fight against serious crime and terrorism, they have urgently had to adopt the Judicial Redress Act, a law giving European citizens the same legal rights to redress as American citizens. This was a requirement in which I and my UK colleagues were able to participate in developing.
Retreating into a corner, and keeping ourselves to ourselves has never been the British way. We are heavy hitters, with the greatly respected and effective British Director Rob Wainwright at the helm of EUROPOL.
Those who want out say that we have no influence. In fact, many of the laws we pass in the European Union are led by Britain, and influenced and controlled by British standards.
Many colleagues from other Member States believe that the UK’s membership of the EU is essential in order to create a more balanced and reformed Union. Scare stories of an EU FBI and EU police force are based on ignorance not facts. It is true that some individuals in Europe want these things, but the vast majority don’t.
Our security is rightly becoming a leading issue in the EU Referendum debate. On that issue we really must not put our country in danger for political ends. We owe ongoing security to our children and grandchildren, and remaining active and leading members of a reformed EU helps us to discharge that obligation.