Opting into the controversial European arrest warrant (EAW) will prevent Britain becoming a “honeypot” for European fugitives, the Home Secretary has said.
Theresa May added that British criminals would find it easier to escape court action in the UK and terrorists would be more difficult to trace if the Government did not sign back up to the EU measure.
Opponents of the EAW cite concerns it is too easy for UK citizens to be extradited and some Conservative backbenchers have hinted at a revolt when the proposal comes to a vote in the Commons.
But speaking to the Sunday Times, Mrs May warned: “If we don’t have these measures in place, it will be harder to keep tabs on terrorists returning from Syria and travelling around Europe and we would have more foreign criminals in our prisons.
“British criminals would be able to hop on to the Eurostar or fly to Spain, safe in the knowledge we wouldn’t be able to get them back to prosecute them.
“However we change our relationship with Europe, we will still need to have in place measures that allow us to share information about criminal records, extradite people in and out of the country to face justice and transfer prisoners back to their home countries. That would be true even if we left the EU altogether.”
She added opting out would see the UK become “a honeypot for all of Europe’s criminals on the run from justice”.
The EAW is one of 35 measures the Government is seeking to opt back into after having opted out of a raft of more than 100 EU policies relating to justice and home affairs.
Supporters argue it has played a vital role in securing the return to the UK of suspects in significant crimes, including 21/7 bomber Osman Hussein, who fled to Italy, or teacher Jeremy Forrest, who was returned from France to face trial over the alleged abduction of a 15-year-old girl.
But opponents also claim UK citizens could be extradited on relatively minor charges to countries where they may have no guarantee of a fair trial.
Earlier this month Graham Brady, the chairman of the influential Conservative backbench 1922 Committee – seen as the voice of rank-and-file Tory MPs – became the most senior figure in the party to speak out and urge the Prime Minister to think again.
“I feel very strongly we ought to be bringing powers back to the United Kingdom, back to British democratic control,” he said.
“We shouldn’t be ceding powers to the European institutions. I think it sends a message which is really very unhelpful.”
Conservative former immigration minister Damian Green claimed rapists, murderers and child molesters would view Britain as the place to go to avoid being convicted for their crimes on mainland Europe if the country opted out of the EAW.
He said it would be “much more than a sop to Ukip” to opt out of the measure, telling BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show: “That would be really dangerous.
“I genuinely can’t understand why my eurosceptic colleagues have chosen this as a battle to fight because not opting back in to the European arrest warrant would make this a less safe country.
“We would be the country in Europe where all Europe’s criminals and terrorists would be inclined to come, because not only would we not be able to get terrorists back from other countries as quickly as we can now … but also rapists, murderers, child molesters and so on would think Britain is probably the place to go where you’d have most chance of not being convicted of crimes you committed in the rest of Europe.
“It would be very, very bad for the safety of our streets not to have the European arrest warrant.”
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper urged Mrs May to say when the government would be opting back into the EAW, pledging Labour support in a promised Commons vote on the issue.
Mrs Cooper said she was “pleased” that Mrs May was supporting the measure.
“The Labour Party strongly believes we need to retain the European Arrest Warrant to protect our borders and keep the public safe,” Mrs Cooper added.
“Like me, you will have heard from senior police officers about how important the European Arrest Warrant is in enabling them to deport foreign criminals without going through a lengthy extradition process.
“Removing it would make it easier for criminals to come to our country to evade justice and would create more bureaucracy for our police.
“I know there are those in your party, as well as Ukip, who would like to see Britain opt out of the European Arrest Warrant.
“But this would make it much harder to deport foreign criminals and would also make it more difficult for us to bring British citizens who have committed crimes back to our country to face justice.
“We would also be extremely concerned if there was any delay beyond December 1 in opting back in.
“It would be highly damaging for the fight against crime if victims and the police were left in limbo as a result of delays and political handling problems within the Conservative Party.
“We will support you in Parliament in voting to opt back into the European Arrest Warrant and the other vital measures.
“I therefore urge you to ensure we can do this as swiftly as possible to demonstrate the clear parliamentary majority that exists in favour of these vital crime-fighting measures and to make sure that victims and the police get the support they need.”