It was supposed to encourage mutual trust and provide a vital weapon in the "war" against terrorism and serious crime, but the European Arrest Warrant has come under scrutiny for its sometimes indiscriminate use for minor offenses. MEPs from across the political spectrum raised the issue Wednesday.
Introduced in 2004, following a European Commission proposal in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001, the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) is a fast-track extradition procedure between EU countries, initially aimed at terror suspects and those accused of serious crimes. However the definition of serious crime has proven open to interpretation and subject to the different legal traditions of the EU states
The EAW allows member state authorities to request the arrest and extradition of suspects throughout the EU, irrespective of their country of origin, for a wide range of crimes even if the offence in question is not an offence in the country of which the offender is a citizen or which has to carry out the arrest.
According to the latest data, more than 70,000 warrants were issued between 2004 and 2010 and more than 12,000 have successfully been executed. The use of the EAW has shortened the average length of intra-EU extradition requests from a year to just 16 days where the offender agrees to the extradition and 50 days if they don't.
In 2009 Poland issued the most warrants with 4844, followed by Germany with 2433, Romania with 1900, France with 1240, Hungary with 1038 and the Netherlands with 530.
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is probably the best-known person arrested under an EAW but it has also been successfully used against terror suspects, armed robbers and drug smugglers.
However, they are not the only ones. Several cases highlight the potential for abuse, such as the warrants issued for the theft of two car tyres, a piglet and a bicycle, or "possession of 0.45 grams of cannabis", as reported by the Council, as well as cases where a warrant is refused but the suspect is arrested anyway once he crosses the border. The member states and Commission believe these cases undermine the credibility of the arrest warrant.
The Commission wants the seriousness of the offence, the length of the sentence and the existence of an alternative approach to be examined before a EAW is granted given that each warrant procedure costs the taxpayer around €25,000.
... and hard questions
In oral questions to the Council and Commission Wednesday, MEPs from all groups will raise the problem of the "disproportionate use" of the warrant for minor offenses; protection of the rights of the accused throughout the process - including the right to adequate legal representation in both countries; prison conditions; and the handling of cases where a warrant is refused, but the issuing state persists in its attempts to arrest the suspect.