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EU: Common Arrest Warrant Seems Inevitable, But Worries Persist

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The European Union appears determined to create a powerful Europe-wide arrest warrant to help fight terrorism, in spite of Italy's rejection of the original plan. Critics accuse Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of putting his personal interests first. That's because he has sought to delete or delay the warrant's provisions on fraud and corruption -- charges he is all too familiar with in his own complicated business life. But Berlusconi is not the only one with doubts about the warrant. Some lawyers see the move as too hasty and a threat to human rights.

Prague, 10 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Italy's rejection of plans for the quick introduction of a broad-based common arrest warrant in the European Union has angered Rome's EU partners.

Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt of Belgium, the current EU president, flies to Italy on 11 December for talks aimed at bringing Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi into line with the other 14 EU members. Those EU members favor a Europe-wide warrant covering 32 crimes, including terrorism and trafficking in humans, arms, and drugs, as well as financial crimes such as fraud.

That last area appears to be the problem. Italy has put forward a proposal for only six crimes to be included in the warrant, none of which would be financial crimes.

Critics say Berlusconi is motivated by personal interests. A media magnate and billionaire whose business methods are often controversial, he faces charges in Italy of corruption, and abroad of fraud. His critics say he is trying to avoid the possibility that some of the terms of the new arrest warrant could be applied to himself or his businesses.

The Italian government's public stance is that the warrant would mean, for instance, that Italians could be extradited to other EU states for activities not considered criminal at home. The EU partners reject that possibility, with German Interior Minister Otto Schily calling the Italian position "completely unacceptable." Schily says it's impossible for a warrant against terrorism to exclude crimes such as fraud and counterfeiting.

Italy has countered by offering to accept all 32 crimes in a common warrant, but only from the year 2008. That timetable is unacceptable to the other partners, and the matter must now go to the EU end-of-year summit in Laeken on 14-15 December for a decision -- unless Verhofstadt's visit tomorrow can untie the knot.

Verhofstadt says he wants the 14 countries to go ahead with the full warrant even if Italy continues to object. That would be a rare example of isolating a major EU partner.

But whatever one thinks of Italy's -- or Berlusconi's -- motives in opposing the full warrant, he is not alone in his concern. Some international lawyers worry that a pan-European warrant is being created too hastily in the wake of the 11 September terror attacks in the United States.

Brussels-based lawyer Phillip Landolt says each European country has its own criminal-law background and culture. He says a standardization of the scope of a common arrest warrant needs to be deliberated more carefully: "I think it is a reaction [to 11 September] and people ought to think through the consequences [of this warrant] a great deal more. In particular, there are a lot of civil rights issues involved. I know, for instance, as regards English law there are specific protections which one does not necessarily see in the proposed new measures."

Landolt says the issue of individual rights is sensitive at the moment in light of the campaign to fight international terrorism. In his opinion, the proposed warrant is pointing "in the wrong direction."

Landolt says efforts to form a common judicial space in the EU are not new and have been going on since 1993 -- a fact he links to the eastward enlargement process. He says the EU states feel "vulnerable" and want to be able to exercise some control over what is happening in the volatile states that will eventually make up the union's eastern and southeastern borders.

"Countries where the current conflagration is occurring border on countries bordering on what will be Europe's new boundaries, and so there is a great push to standardize what countries at the frontier of Europe's boundaries to the east and southeast are doing," he says. "But this is a very serious [task] indeed, and it has human rights consequences."

Landolt says more time needs to be spent considering the new common warrant, which he says should not be "ramrodded" through: "Generally speaking, something like this is necessary in time, but much can go wrong and of course if things go wrong, it will deter people from believing in the cause. It only takes one flagrant instance of a miscarriage of justice to start a stampede in the other direction."

Not all legal experts take a similarly cautious stance.

Brussels-based lawyer Razvan Emanoil says that European-level crime-prevention measures are needed in view of the fact that borders within the EU are now open and there is free movement of people, meaning that crime has taken on a pan-European dimension.

"It might seem a little bit controversial, but on the other hand, there are among the European countries a lot of treaties signed bilaterally and multilaterally for the purpose of administrative and judicial help in order to fight organized crime and also in general," Emanoil says. "And I think this [new common measure] is just like a treaty where all the countries decide to accept the same terms and to help each other fight crime."

Whichever view one takes, it seems unlikely that the EU partners, with or without Italy, can be restrained from adopting the common arrest warrant. They view it as an essential tool in the fight against terrorism. It will allow police in one EU country to arrest suspects wanted in another, and hand them over without lengthy extradition proceedings.