Member states still refuse to share information on air passengers, fearing the data could fall into the wrong hands. France is pushing for the proposal’s adoption with one hand, while watering it down with the other. EURACTIV France reports.
The terrorist attacks in Brussels last Tuesday (22 March) have reignited the somewhat skewed debate on the airline Passenger Name Record (PNR) in France. The proposal to create a list of air passengers that can be shared between EU member states has been blocked at the European level for the last four years.
“We urgently need to adopt PNR. We also urgently need to strengthen our controls on the European Union’s external borders. France has been saying this for months,” the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls told Europe 1.
But this debate is plagued by hypocrisy. The French government consistently accuses the European Parliament of blocking the agreement for political reasons, rather than because of any principled objection to PNR itself, as the system will not bring any deep changes.
Lofty ambitions shot down by France
The text under discussion lacks ambition. Its adoption would probably have a greater impact on the security perceptions of EU citizens than on the actual fight against terrorism.
“The European Parliament wanted to see one single European file created, with data on all passengers. But the member states opted for 28 files, 28 PNR systems, which could be accessed as and when needed,” said Dominique Riquet, a Parti Radical MEP (ALDE).
With such a fragmented system, the United States security services know more about who takes European flights than do the EU member states themselves, the French Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve said on 22 March.
And the member states are not prepared to move on the subject: even some of the biggest EU countries refuse to share more information, including France and the United Kingdom. “This is not about the loss of sovereignty… but let’s say there is a lack of confidence in certain states,” a source close to the minister said.
France clearly fears that sensitive information could fall into the wrong hands and that unscrupulous civil servants in Eastern European countries, for example, could be vulnerable to bribery from criminal or terrorist organisations.
The latent corruption in certain areas of the EU is certainly a worry, but Northern and Western Europe can hardly claim to be unaffected. The Neyret affair, which is due to come to trial in France in May, illustrated how easy it can be for criminals to pay for access to Interpol files.
“PNR is a battle of hypocrites,” said Riquet, who went on to argue that rushing the proposal onto the European Parliament’s agenda for the next plenary session in April was a politically sound course of action.
Security questions divide the left
The issue of PNR is also being used by the French government to reinforce its image as an administration that takes security seriously. And with the presidential elections just round the corner in 2017, this is a highly sensitive subject.
The first to speak of “war” after the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November, Valls once again adopted a security-heavy rhetoric on 22 March. Mooted as a possible candidate to replace François Hollande in next year’s election battle, the PM has set out his stall to the right of his party, prioritising sovereignty and security over the traditionally center-left issues.
This debate has led to deep divisions among progressives. As the French Socialist delegation to the European Parliament stressed, it was the member states – once again, including France – that chose to make PNR a directive, not a regulation, meaning its implementation could be delayed for two years, rather than being immediately applicable.
“The truth is that neither the attacks in Paris nor Brussels would have been stopped by PNR,” the delegation stated in a press release.
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.