A ‘mea culpa’ emerged from the emergency meeting on security matters on Friday (20 November), as EU member states acknowledged they did not use all the tools at their disposal to address the terrorist threats.
“We are completely aware” that the measures endorsed by the EU ministers of Justice and Home Affairs have been discussed in the past, confessed Etienne Schneider, the Minister of Home Affairs of Luxembourg, whose country is at the EU’s helm this semester.
But, he added, that after the Paris attacks on 13 November, when 129 people died, member states realized that they needed to implement them “as soon as possible”.
Although they agreed last May on strengthening the checks for certain EU citizens, according to a set of common risk indicators, only a few governments are following these recommendations, EU officials pointed out.
Terrorists with EU passports, such as the majority of the militants involved in the Paris attacks, represent a major challenge for the European authorities, as controls at the external borders are limited to a minimum check to establish their identity, through the verification of their travel documents, according to Schengen rules.
Although the set of common risk indicators remains secret for security reasons, it allows member states to carry out systematic controls on all EU citizens arriving from a particular third country, or to all flights arriving into a particular member state.
The ministers agreed on making these checks mandatory. Moreover, all EU citizens will be now considered a potential threat, so all EU travellers will be subject to a stricter scrutiny, including checks against the Schengen Information System (SIS), as is the case for all third country nationals.
“We are now in the phase of implementing Schengen” in order to be “efficient” in protecting our borders, said French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve.
France asked for the crisis meeting with three requests on the agenda: bolstering external border controls, setting up of a European Passenger Name Record (PNR) and the fight against the illegal trafficking of weapons.
The meeting illustrated that Europe needs better implementation of measures previously agreed after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in January, instead of new ones.
Besides the loopholes in the external border controls, ministers also emphasised that member states should improve their exchange of intelligence. Officials estimate that five member states share “half of the information” related to foreign terrorists, while the other capitals barely engage in the exchange of information.
Therefore, the ministers agreed on making “maximum use” of the Schengen tools to improve the overall level of information exchange between counter-terrorism authorities in the EU.
“Member states will ensure that the relevant national authorities significantly increase their contributions to Focal Point Traveller at Europol to reflect the threat and connect to relevant Europol information exchange systems,” the conclusions read.
In light of this lack of cooperation among the capitals, Dimitris Avramopoulos, Commissioner for Internal Affairs and Migration, called for an EU intelligence service “to respond to the real needs of security in Europe”. However, he said that this was an “ideal idea” that it was not discussed during the meeting, as he did not put it on the table.
Meanwhile, the ministers also emphasized the “urgency and priority of finalising an ambitious EU PNR before the end of 2015”, including internal flights within Schengen, which is currently being negotiated with the European Parliament.
One of the main bones of contention is how long the data can be retained. While the member states wanted three years, Parliament was ready to accept only one month, over privacy concerns.
During the press conference, Cazeneuve highlighted that it should be at least one year. “No single EU citizen would understand why the European Parliament is blocking it,” he added.
The Council will also speed up the legislative process of the new rules presented by the Commission on 18 November, to fight against arms trafficking.
“We must be implacable in our determination, we must speed up our action, otherwise Europe will lose its way,” he said in his concluding remarks.
France called for an emergency meeting of EU Justice and Interior ministers on 20 November to speed up and implement security measures already under discussion.
In this context, the Commission finalised in May, in close cooperation with national experts, the EEAS, EU agencies and Interpol, a first set of common risk indicators, concerning foreign terrorist fighters, with a view to detect terrorists travelling to Europe. Common risk indicators support the work of national border authorities when conducting checks on persons. The affected passengers will automatically be subject of stricter controls.
To make the common risk indicators an effective operational tool, the Commission has invited FRONTEX to support member states in the field of training and awareness-raising.
Against the backdrop of the revision of the Schengen Information System, announced for 2016 to enforce return and entry bans, the Commission is expected to look into possible needs to enhance the law enforcement aspect of the SIS. In the meantime, the EU executive is urging member states to make full use of the possibilities to enter into the SIS alerts relating to all measures involving expulsion, refusal of entry or removal from the territory of a member state.