The European Parliament votes today (14 April) on whether airlines can share the names of passengers with member states to help trace returning jihadists. But lawmakers fear that some of the amendments be considered will “kill” the project.
One of the two Brussels airport suicide bombers, Ibrahim El Bakraoui, was deported by plane from Turkey to Europe without detection despite being a wanted man in Belgium.
The vote by MEPs in Strasbourg, France comes after interior ministers from the 28 EU nations in December finally settled privacy concerns that had hobbled negotiations with the legislature since 2011.
The United States has long urged the European Union to establish a Passenger Name Record (PNR) system where officials can detect patterns of suspicious behaviour through the sharing of passenger data.
“I’m hoping for a positive vote,” Timothy Kirkhope, the British MEP (Conservatives) who is steering the legislation through parliament, told a press conference Wednesday (13 April) in Strasbourg.
“We’ve taken a long time to come to this point. But I hope we finally may be able to put in place a PNR system that delivers both for saving lives and also for protecting our vital liberties,” Kirkhope said.
But Kirkhope slammed the liberal ALDE group, and the Greens, for filing amendments which could “kill” his proposal.
“This is a wolf in sheep’s clothing amendment that looks perfectly innocent but is clearly designed to sink the PNR deal. If it is passed the whole agreement between the European Parliament and European governments would collapse,” he said.
“MEPs need to understand that any amendment to this agreement would delay it substantially and probably kill the proposal altogether. […] If MEPs want to vote against it then that is for them to justify, but they should come out and say so, not pretend to be pro-PNR whilst doing whatever they can behind the scenes to stop it,” Kirkhope hammered out.
The PNR is designed to track not only potential jihadists but also criminals, including those who smuggle people, drugs or weapons.
Kirkhope has said the choice is not between a European Union PNR system and no such system, but one between a bloc-wide approach and 28 national systems that would leave gaps.
PNR can “identify the routes used by criminals and terrorists and prevent individuals from reaching their intended destinations or targets,” he said Wednesday.
France spearheaded the drive for the PNR in the wake of the 13 November Islamic State group attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead. It made another push following the 22 March attacks in Brussels that left 32 people and were linked to those in the French capital.
The draft legislation would require airlines to share passenger data – such as travel dates, itineraries, passport details and phone numbers – with authorities in EU destination countries.
The goal is to detect, for example, individuals who have not been flagged by authorities as presenting a threat, but whose travel patterns raise suspicions.
It would then be up to one country to alert another or send a specific request for data from another country as part of an investigation.
It would apply to flights to and from destinations outside the EU, but member states could also apply them to flights within the bloc.
The data would be held for five years, though after six months key information would be “masked” and no longer be accessible, barring a specific request.
France had originally wanted the information to remain unmasked for at least one year but EU members settled in December for the six months that parliament wanted.
The vote will occur along with a separate ballot on rules over how the police and the courts use personal information.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls visited Strasbourg on Tuesday (12 April) to lobby various parliamentary groups, including fellow socialists, urging MEPs to show “responsibility” in the wake of the Brussels attacks.
“The European PNR is an extra means we will have to be effective in the fight against terrorism,” Valls said.
If adopted, EU countries will have two years to turn it into national law.
GUE/NGL Coordinator on the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee Cornelia Ernst, stated that it was delusional to think that collecting more data on ordinary citizens would make Europe a safer place.
Ernst explained that if Europe wants to prevent terrorism, "we don't need more large volumes of data, we need better use of existing data."
"Following the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, we have learned that better cooperation between police and public prosecutors in the member states is needed. It would be much more effective to invest in this rather than spending billions of euros on Passenger Name Records," she continued.
Ernst added that under the PNR proposal discussed today, "ordinary people will unnecessarily become suspects and this undermines the principle of the rule of law."
French GUE/NGL MEP Marie-Christine Vergiat explained further: "Everyone wants European citizens to be safe, but the PNR directive won't work because the collection of data is not targeted. It is just a sort of harmonisation that does not require member states to exchange data. It would not have prevented the attacks in Paris or Brussels. These terrorists travelled by car and train, and intelligence services already knew about them."
"We don't need technology that will help big business make profits. Instead, we must do what is necessary to allow police and law enforcement authorities to do their work."
Irish GUE/NGL MEP Martina Anderson also raised serious concerns for European citizens' fundamental rights: "The right to protection of personal data is enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Charter of Fundamental Rights."
"The PNR proposal is invasive and unecessary. The European institutions should concern themselves more with the protection of citizens' civil liberties rather than which meals they order on a flight," Anderson concluded.
Joe McNamee, Executive Director of European Digital Rights (EDRi), stated in a press release that his organisation regrets that much of the ambition of the original data protection package was lost, “due to one of the biggest lobbying campaigns in European history".
"The PNR Directive is a disgrace," he continued. "It is absurd that we are being told that these huge databases are hugely valuable to law enforcement, yet we are also told that Member States rejected mandatory sharing of this allegedly valuable data. It is shocking that, less than two years after the European Court overturned a Directive on needless storage of data of innocent citizens, the European Union seems hell bent on adopting another Directive which does almost exactly the same thing".
EDRi delivered (ironic) certificates to the leaders of the EPP, Socialists & Democrats and European Conservatives and Reformists to commemorate their support for this "mass surveillance measure".
The proposed EU PNR directive would oblige airlines to hand EU countries their passengers' data in order to help the authorities to fight terrorism and serious crime.
It would require more systematic collection, use and retention of PNR data on air passengers, and would therefore have an impact on the rights to privacy and data protection.
The directive, proposed by the European Commission in 2011, has met with opposition in the European Parliament, over fears that it will compromise the private life of European citizens.
The terrorist attacks in Paris in January and November 2015, and those in Brussels in March 2016, have given a political boost to the plans, which have still not been adopted.
- European Parliament: EU PNR: useful against terrorism, but privacy and proportionality worries remain