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28/08/2016

MEPs refuse to vote on PNR before Council strengthens data protection

Justice & Home Affairs

MEPs refuse to vote on PNR before Council strengthens data protection

Many MEPs are concerned about the implications the European PNR could have for data protection.

[Teppo Kotirinta/Flickr]

The ideological battle over the proposed system of recording air passenger information raged on this Monday (7 March), as MEPs refused to vote on the bill. EurActiv France reports.

The emotional response to the Paris terror attacks last November seemed to have definitively settled the sensitive issue of the Passenger Name Record (PNR), a European tool meant to help in the fight against terrorism.

But this draft directive, broadly criticised by the Socialists and the Greens for the invasion of privacy that it implies, is still no closer to being adopted, despite the initial promise of a vote in the plenary before the end of 2015.

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“But on 7 March there was a vote on whether to place PNR on the agenda of the plenary session. And this proposal was rejected,” said Philippe Juvin, an MEP and the spokesperson of the French delegation in the right wing EPP group.

A joint initiative of the conservative EPP and the ECR groups, the proposal to place the PNR on the agenda of the current plenary session was rejected by virtually all the other political families. They fear a vote on PNR may allow member states to abandon the personal data protection package they have promised as a counterweight to the new surveillance powers.

Give and take

The majority of MEPs want to see this package adopted at the same time as the PNR directive. But the European Council has been dragging its feet on the issue for years.

“It is true that the Council has never been particularly helpful on the legislative package related to data protection,” said Pervenche Berès, the president of the French Socialist delegation in the European Parliament. “But the fact that PNR has still not been adopted in March 2016, after it was promised for December last year, does not give a very good impression of the EU,” she added.

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The give and take nature of the agreement between the two institutions was clear for members of the European Parliament: in return for supporting the proposed PNR directive, the Parliament expected the Council to push ahead with the legislative package on data protection.

“We have now reached the point of political equilibrium between the two bills, and the lawyers and linguists have finished their work. The rapporteur on PNR used this progress to propose that the directive be added to the agenda,” said Berès. Yet so far, no date has been scheduled for a vote on the data protection package.

“The European Parliament had accepted that the texts on personal data protection and PNR be negotiated in parallel with the European governments. We never committed to voting on them in parallel,” said British Conservative MEP and PNR rapporteur, Timothy Kirkhope.

Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the European Parliament’s liberal ALDE group, called on the Council “to do its job so we can vote on the two agreements during the next plenary session in April”.

For the EPP, which is acting as a block to support the text, the issue is becoming a source of worry. “Our concern is that this refusal to place the text on the agenda will be repeated at the next plenary sessions,” said Juvin.

Deep divisions

This parliamentary blockage over the voting agenda is anything but trivial: the text has caused deep divisions, both along party lines and within the parties themselves. “If it already existed, the PNR would have allowed us to track the flights taken by the terrorists that carried out the attacks in Paris last November,” said Alain Lamassoure, the president of the French EPP delegation in the European Parliament.

Under the PNR system, a certain amount of information, like the identity, flight number and the means of payment used by the traveller, would be stored by the carrier and communicated to the member states. This data would in theory help the security services identify passengers with links to terrorism, and would be kept for five years.

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But for the Greens, this European project just does not add up. “All the perpetrators of the Paris attacks were already known to the security services,” said French Green MEP Pascal Durand. “What is really lacking in Europe is not the access to information, but the personnel to deal with this information,” he added.

“If we could prove that a European PNR would have been useful to obtain information that could have stopped the Paris attacks, then obviously we could reopen discussions on the text. But for now, we are just meddling with a disproportionate surveillance system,” the MEP said.

Balancing act

The vote on the agenda also proved divisive, particularly in the French camp. Pushed by a government that has been highly active on the subject since last November, the French Socialists voted with the EPP and ECR groups and backed the inclusion of the text on the agenda.

But for many, their ideological opposition to the PNR meant they preferred to simply miss the vote altogether. Within the liberal ALDE group, one of the most staunchly anti-PNR formations in the European Parliament, the French members were again extremely divided. Half supported the motion to hold the vote during the March plenary session, and half opposed it.

Finally, the French supporters of the text within the EPP group had pushed for this accelerated timetable, but were conspicuously absent when the time came to vote. “We were surprised by the procedure, and many MEPs only go to Strasbourg from Tuesday,” Juvin said, by way of explanation for his absence.

But the political group presidents had already taken their positions on the subject as early as 3 March.

Background

Data retention refers to the storage of traffic and location data resulting from electronic communications.

The main legislative instrument at EU level governing this field was the Data Retention Directive, which was adopted in November 2006 following the Madrid terrorist train bombings in 2004 and the public transport bombings in London in 2005. These resulted in a text which gave room for different applications at national level and which did not guarantee a sufficient level of harmonisation.

Data protection and privacy in electronic communications are also governed by the E-privacy Directive, which dates back to 2002, although it has been slightly revised in 2009.

Germany, however, is still overshadowed by apprehension toward government monitoring, due to the heavy surveillance of citizens practised in the Communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) and under Hitler’s Nazi regime.

Germany and Belgium were taken to court by the EU after refusing to implement the 2006 Data Retention Directive. The measure was overturned in April 2014.

Further Reading

European Commission: proposed PNR directive

European Parliament:  proposed report on PNR directive