Concerns have now mounted over a special agreement with the EU on justice and security, as otherwise, the loss of access to the landmark European arrest warrant (EAW) system would render Britain a haven for fugitive criminals, Lords warned.
The UK could lose access to Europe’s real-time criminal database unless it reaches a comprehensive Brexit deal with European partners on security and justice, the House of Lords EU security and justice sub-committee heard during questioning of Home Office Minister James Brokenshire.
Separate concerns were raised over the future of the European arrest warrant (EAW) system and the solid chances of the UK becoming a haven for foreign criminals seeking to evade justice from EU member states should the EAW not be observed.
Labour peer Lord Rowlands insisted before the system was in place, it was all “hopeless” in the EU, with criminals en masse fleeing to countries with no extradition treaties.
“I hope we will agree that we want to avoid going back to the old system, because it did allow criminal havens; [with] those characters who lived on the Spanish Costa del Sol immune from any formal proceedings. I’m hoping you are not suggesting that we might have to go back to that, are you?” said Rowlands, as cited by The Guardian.
Peers went on to query how Britain would fare without access to the real-time European criminal watchlist, with Lord Anderson mentioning police in Dover could currently use handheld devices to get relevant information on passengers from the Schengen Information System (SIS II) database allowing suspects to be “questioned before they could simply melt away”.
“It rather sounds as though the legalistic approach that’s being taken to SIS II [in Brexit talks] means that we’re not going to have real-time access to data”, said Anderson, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation in the UK between 2011 and 2017.
Brokenshire busted those arguments, pointing out that the UK had only joined SIS II in 2015 and Ireland was not a member of SIS II, implying counter-terror operations could be run without access to the Schengen watchlists.
Brokenshire then proceeded to express an optimistic outlook on the upcoming talks for a security deal “because of, I think, that sense of shared endeavour”, adding that Britain’s approach backs “national interest and equally supports those broader interests for the EU security too”.
Separately, on the frequency of police turning to the said database, the committee heard that British law enforcement and border guards were the third heaviest users of it, accessing it 603 million times a year on average.
Summing up Britain’s approach to deals with the EU, Lord Ricketts, a former diplomat and the chair of the committee, questioned the “coherence” of the stance. He pointed out that the country was aiming for a Canada-style agreement in trade but a specially close arrangement in security and justice – “an equivalent position to that which perhaps Schengen countries have, or EEA countries have like Norway, Iceland but no other country”, he said.
The ongoing Brexit transition period is now seeing fresh rounds of trade talks between the UK and its European partners in virtual conferences due to the coronavirus-caused lockdowns, while negotiations on security and justice are are understood to be next on the agenda. In terms of trade, reports earlier emerged claiming the UK may signal its readiness to reach a consensus with the EU on trade regulations and fisheries provided Brussels scraps its “maximalist” demands on the matter.