-  Thursday 02 July 2020

EU gun police to hunt suspects in Britain

Armed police officers from other European Union states would be able to chase criminals or terrorist suspects into Britain and detain them under plans being considered by the Government.The Home Office is looking at adopting the hot pursuit provisions of an EU agreement which removed internal frontiers throughout much of mainland Europe.

At present, the Government allows foreign officers to operate independently on British soil under strict conditions.

They can carry out "emergency" surveillance for up to five hours before informing the local constabulary and must leave their weapons behind or at the port of entry. Border checks are also maintained.

But the Home Office has told the Commons committee which scrutinises EU laws that it is considering whether to relax these conditions to allow the armed hot pursuit of suspects.

The change of attitude has been brought about because of proposed alterations to the agreement set out in the Schengen treaty. These would allow hot pursuit not only across land borders, as at present, but also across sea and air.

Ministers believe that this could give Britain valuable scope to pursue criminals and terrorist suspects on the Continent.

If the Government signs, the agreement would give reciprocal powers to continental police forces to conduct similar pursuits in Britain.

A Home Office memorandum submitted to the MPs said: "The United Kingdom does not participate in the hot pursuit provisions in article 41 of the Schengen treaty.

"But taking into account that the [European] Commission's proposal would remove the provision that hot pursuit may only be across land borders, the possibility arises that the UK will need to revisit the question of its participation in article 41 in due course.

"The Government is keeping this matter closely in view."

Although the Schengen agreement makes clear that police on foreign soil should use firearms only in self-defence, the prospect of more armed officers on Britain's streets is likely to cause concern after the shooting in London last year of an innocent Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes, who was mistaken for a terrorist.

When the hot pursuit measures were agreed among other EU countries a few years ago, senior British officers made clear that they did not want foreign officers carrying firearms in the UK.

If the Home Office accepted article 41, the Government would probably seek to negotiate a deal ensuring that weapons were left at the port of entry as at present. The agreement, as it stands, explicitly allows arms to be carried.

The measures allow foreign officers to detain, though not to arrest, on British soil. Article 41 states: "The pursuing officers may carry their service weapons; their use shall be prohibited save in cases of legitimate self-defence."

As British police officers are not routinely armed, the Government may seek an exemption from this provision.

Ministers also want "a dual criminality" safeguard written in: that the crime for which the suspect is being pursued is also an offence in Britain. However, this rule was dropped for the European arrest warrant and it seems unlikely that other EU countries would reintroduce it.

If Britain signs the new measures, it will be the latest stage in the gradual, if lengthy, adoption of the provisions of the Schengen agreement.

The convention, signed in 1990, abolished checks on the movement of people across the common borders of the signatory countries and created a single external frontier where checks would be carried out in accordance with common rules.

Freedom of movement across internal borders was accompanied by "compensatory measures", such as a common visa regime, and provision for co-operation between the police, customs authorities and the judiciary. The agreement was incorporated into EU law by the treaty of Amsterdam 1997.

Britain considered joining the hot pursuit provisions before but dropped the idea when Ireland refused to participate, rendering any deal pointless when it covered land borders only.


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