Member states ought to discipline local prosecutors who issue European arrest warrants for petty crimes, according to a report scheduled for adoption by the European Commission next week (11 April). The report found that many member states issue European arrest warrants without checks on proportionality. As a result, the system is clogged with extradition requests for minor crimes, such as possession of small quantities of prohibited substances or minor thefts.
Viviane Reding, the European commissioner for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship, is spearheading the call for greater discipline. Her report requests member states to adhere to guidelines on proportionality from the EU’s Council of Ministers, which were amended last year to suggest less coercive alternatives, such as using the Schengen Information System to establish a suspect’s place of residence. It also calls for better data collection by member states.
The warrant system, designed to check serious crime and terrorism, speeds up extradition of criminal suspects or sentenced criminals from one member state to another, with limited possibility for appeal. It has cut the average extradition time to 16 days in cases where the suspect consents, and to 48 days in other cases. Since European arrest warrants were first issued in 2004, their use has grown rapidly. More than 1,000 are currently issued every month.
“Grave and avoidable cases of injustice” are arising, according to pressure groups such as UK-based Fair Trials International. Catherine Heard, its director of policy, said: “Europe is now waking up to the need for proportionality in the use of the warrant.” She considers Reding’s pledges to strengthen procedural rights of suspects and accused persons inadequate: legislative change is required to remedy the problems with the arrest warrant, insists Heard.
Because Reding is not yet empowered to launch infringement procedures against recalcitrant member states – the system was established in 2002 by a Council framework decision – she is restricted at present to appealing to national governments. But under the Lisbon treaty, these decisions will come under the Commission’s authority from 2014. An official suggested that the Commission will consider launching infringement procedures if member states have not adjusted their use of the system by then.
Claude Moraes, a UK centre-left MEP, said that the Socialists and Democrats group in the Parliament was “100% behind Reding” on the proportionality test. “We need to solve the problem of real injustices based on trivial events that wreck the credibility of the whole system,” he said. “We are desperate for some kind of analysis and rectification to bring the European arrest warrant back to what it’s supposed to do.” But he also warned against “cosmetic” changes and said that the system had been “patched up time and again with procedural guarantees” that had failed to tackle the underlying problem.
A decision by Ireland’s High Court last month highlighted another of the pecularities to which the system has given rise. The court ordered the surrender of an Irish citizen wanted by the French authorities for the alleged murder of a French national. The violent death happened in Ireland but the Irish authorities had decided against prosecuting the suspect. Until the European arrest warrant was introduced, member states as a rule did not extradite their own nationals to another member state, but the system makes their extradition mandatory under most conditions.
Next week’s report, which runs to around 200 pages, is the third Commission report on the implementation of the system. It analyses relevant legal developments in each of the EU’s 27 member states.
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