Brexit is so close that I can almost taste it. If Parliament continues on its current path, the UK will leave the EU in just six weeks.
The drama around the Withdrawal Agreement and the various defeats the Government has faced in the House of Commons – along with the Irish border and future trading relationship questions – have dominated the news and eaten up our attention.
But when I voted to leave the EU I was not only thinking of trade and borders: I saw an opportunity to look to the best of British traditions and make them central to our future. And chief among the great British traditions that we wandered away from during our membership of the EU is respect for civil liberties.
As far as I’m concerned protection of civil liberties is the greatest of British traditions, dating back well over 800 years and affirmed by Magna Carta in 1215. Various other Acts and Bills have reaffirmed those liberties over the centuries, culminating in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) which the UK signed in 1950, and the Human Rights Act 1998 which changed how ECHR rulings are implemented in the UK.
The ECHR has attracted a lot of criticism over the years, as the interpretation of the convention by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has expanded to interfere in more and more things, such as preventing the deportation of criminals including terrorists.
At the same time as the ECHR has led to many instances of being too soft on ‘human rights’, our membership of the EU has meant that some of our traditional civil liberties have been neglected.
Our relationship with the ECHR will not change when we leave the EU, but nevertheless Brexit represents an opportunity to renew our commitment to those civil liberties that have been laid down in law since 1215. And in my view it is of extreme importance that we reform the way extradition to EU countries works.
At present, the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) governs extradition between the UK and other EU countries. The EAW assumes that all justice systems across the EU are of equal quality, and that fundamental rights and liberties will be respected. This is, of course, nonsense.
There are two extracts from two very important pieces of British historical text that are relevant to how we handle extradition today.
Magna Carta said:
“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled; nor will we proceed with force against him except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”
And the 1689 Bill of Rights said:
“…excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
But over the last two decades the EU has expanded to take in a series of countries that routinely deny these civil liberties in their justice systems, putting British citizens and residents at risk of their traditional British civil liberties being denied.
These violations of civil liberties laid down in Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights are best measured by violations of two articles of the ECHR: Article 3 (prohibition of torture) and Article 6 (right to a fair trial). My report, published by Due Process, found that the top violators of these two rights over the last few years included countries such as Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Hungary and Poland.
But by far the worst in the EU in recent years was Romania, with numbers of violations comparable to Russia. There are a number of problems with Romania’s justice system; there are no jury trials, for example. But recent revelations about the role of the SRI, the Romanian intelligence service, in the prosecutor’s office have been shocking. Some experts have argued that these secret protocols amount to a ‘police state’ – and that’s what the EAW system leaves each and every one of us vulnerable to.
The Government has said that it wants to replicate the functions of the EAW from outside the EU. The EAW undoubtedly makes extraditions much easier, but at the cost of civil liberties. Continuing the UK’s membership of such a system would be a grave mistake.
It’s time for those of us who campaigned and voted to leave the EU to speak up, loud and clear, for the kind of future we want for our country. Not just on trade, borders and immigration, but in terms of the great British traditions we ought to restore. When the UK finally exits the EU, we should renew our commitment to civil liberties.
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