Lord Tom McNally writes…Liberal Democrats secure best possible deal for collaborative EU justice

The Commons votes tonight on whether the government should exercise the impenetrably-named ‘EU Justice and Home Affairs mass opt-out’.

While it sounds dry and technical, this decision is hugely significant as EU ‘JHA measures’ have been crucial in securing justice for hundreds of British victims of crime. These instruments have been prominent in the extradition of attempted London bomber Hussain Osman from Italy under a European Arrest Warrant, in coordinating via Eurojust the investigation into the Annecy killings and in Europol’s EU-wide investigation, ‘Operation Veto’, into match-fixing and corruption in sport.

The mass opt-out is not an ingenious new attempt by the Conservative party to renegotiate the terms of our membership of the EU, although you might be forgiven for thinking so from some of the rhetoric. The JHA mass opt-out is a one-off mechanism, negotiated by Labour, which allows the UK to jettison en masse the body of EU police and judicial cooperation measures which pre-date the coming into force of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009.

If we do opt out of everything, we can apply to rejoin selected measures. The coalition has spent the last 12 months in painstaking negotiations (led by Danny Alexander and Oliver Letwin) to decide what such an ‘opt back in’ list might look like, based on the advice of government departments and agencies, the House of Lords select committees, the Association of Chief Police Officers, and a number of academics.

The result: a package of 35 measures which meet the vast majority of requests from law enforcement, including Europol, Eurojust, the Schengen information system, the European criminal records information system, and the European Arrest Warrant. The measures which are being dropped on the other hand are, by and large, those which are now redundant, those which have been superseded by newer instruments, those which have already been incorporated into UK law, and those which have very little operational use for the UK. So we’re keeping the wheat and losing the chaff. This package will now be scrutinised by the parliamentary select committees and will form the basis of the next stage of negotiations with the Commission and Member States, whose consent is needed before we can formally opt back in.

Some of you will wonder why the government is going through all the rigmarole of opting out and then back in again: if the measures in question are so important, wouldn’t it be better not to exercise the mass opt-out at all?

I have some sympathy with that view, and if Liberal Democrats were in government on our own I suspect we would not be exercising the mass opt-out. But we’re not in government on our own. We are in coalition with the Conservatives, and I believe we have a deal which shows the influence of Liberal Democrats in government: one which preserves, in the face of strong opposition, all the key measures which our law enforcement agencies need to work collaboratively with others on the continent to bring criminals to justice. Remember this is not what the Tories wanted: earlier in the process more than 100 backbenchers wrote to the Prime Minister calling for all of the 130 measures to be dropped.

We have fought hard to preserve both the principle of cooperation and the practical tools which keep the public safe, in the face of a Euroscepticism which would put public safety at risk in the pursuit of its anti-European agenda. In particular, we made the preservation of the European Arrest Warrant a vivid red line. Yes, it needs reform, and the government will now set about reforming it. But it would have been unthinkable for Liberal Democrats to jettison a measure which has shortened the time it takes to extradite suspects within the EU from in some cases a matter of years to a matter of days. That is good news for victims and for justice, and it would have been madness to lose it.

I therefore welcome the agreement. It is a good deal for the public, and a good deal for the Liberal Democrats. I look forward to the successful negotiation of a final agreement with Brussels over the months to come.

* Tom McNally is Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords and a Minister of State for Justice

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  • This is a craven result for the Lib Dems.

    There is no point in opting out of “minimum threshold” EU wide common standards that have already been incorporated into UK law (as most of these measures have) UNLESS the intention is to abandon those minimum standards in the future. That is almost certainly the firm intention of many of the Conservative party MPs. It isn’t the job of Lib Dems to facilitate them in this – appeasing the Tory “militant tendency” doesn’t work as should be obvious by now.

  • Oh, and where is the referendum on this by the way?

    After all didn’t the Conservatives want an “In/Out” referendum only last week? What better place to start then in whether the UK should exercise its opt-out or not?

    It should be clear those self-same Tories only want a referendum when they can’t secure a majority in Parliament and seek to usurp its decision making role as a result.

  • Richard Wingfield 16th Jul '13 - 2:02pm

    I think the Lib Dems can be pleased with this result.

    Under a Conservative government, there would have been a full opt-out with few (if any) opt-ins afterwards. Under a Labour government, there would most likely have been a full opt-out (or else why did Blair want the possibility of one) followed by an opt-in to some of the measures. So the possibility of no opt-out was never really realistic.

    We can be pleased that the UK is playing a stronger role in the EU on criminal justice measures as a result of our presence in government. We are often portrayed as softer on crime than the Tories, but these measures will help ensure that offenders will be brought to justice more quickly and that national borders provide no escape for those who commit crime. The final decision as to where we opt-in must be based on evidence and so I hope that the government will listen to the advice of the Home Affairs, Justice, and European Scrunity Committees before making it.

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