Commission points finger at capitals for poor external border controls

Schengen border check. [Daniel Lobo/Fickr]

The European Commission blamed member states on Wednesday (18 November) for not using existing rules aimed at bolstering checks at the EU’s external borders on EU citizens that could pose a threat.

Reacting to France’s calls for ensuring “systematic and coordinated controls” of external borders, Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos declared that “Schengen is not the problem” – as the member states are not using the instruments at their disposal.

Foreign fighters and terrorists with an EU passport, like most of the attackers involved in the Paris attacks on 13 November, represent a major challenge for the European authorities as controls at the external borders are limited to a minimum check to establish their identity by the verification of their travel documents, according to the Schengen rules.

However, EU officials explained that the Commission issued last May a set of common risk indicators to address the threat of foreign fighters returning to Europe. That list of indicators tells border control authorities in all member states the criteria for people that should be subject to a stricter scrutiny, including a check against the Schengen Information System (SIS), as it is the case for all third country nationals.

The Commission complained that national governments are not using these risk indicators, which are aimed at strengthening their borders. Although the list remains secret for security reasons, officials explained that it allows member states to carry out systematic controls on all persons, including EU citizens, arriving from a particular third country or even to all flights arriving into a particular member state.

“We have even more security controls in external borders”, Avramopoulos told reporters. He added that it is up to France to decide whether they need more controls, as Schengen allows for “stricter” measures.

The Commission will urge member states to apply these common-risk indicators during the ministers of justice and home affairs’ meeting on Friday (20 November). The EU executive pointed out that it has recommended “on several occasions” to strengthen the checks on EU nationals at the external borders.

“We need deeper EU cooperation” in border controls, Avramopoulos stressed.

Official figures estimate that the EU citizens checked against the databases remains low (between 1.5-17%, depending on the member state and border crossing point). Moreover, in some EU countries the thorough checks required on third-country nationals are not always carried out as required by Schengen rules.

>>READ: EU unanimous in agreeing French treaty-call for help after attacks

The Commission does not have a clear picture of which countries are fully applying the recommendation to better scan certain passengers. However, the institution will deploy teams to the member states in the coming weeks to assess the state of play as part of the new Schengen evaluation mechanism.

The strengthening of the external borders is part of a broader package of measures that France has requested in the aftermath of the terrorists attacks against cafes and a concert hall in Paris, when 129 people were killed and hundreds were injured.

The Commission presented on Wednesday (18 November) a revision of the firearms directive to tighten controls on the acquisition and possession of weapons, and new rules on common minimum standards for the deactivation of firearms, as it was already proposed in the European security agenda adopted last April.

Kalashnikovs don’t need passports

But “we need more actions to protect our citizens from the harm of smuggled Kalashnikovs” Avramopoulos said.

He will present in the coming weeks a communication to tackle the illegal trafficking in firearms and explosives. The proposal will include actions to better cooperate with third countries in the Western Balkans and in the Middle East.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said early this week that “arms trafficking is one the things we need to fight if we are going to be effective in fighting terrorism,”

The Commission also encouraged member states and the European Parliament to conclude by the end of the year the negotiations on the European Passenger Name Record (PNR). Avramopoulos hoped that both sides would realize that “there is no time to lose”, while he noted that the MEPs have been very supportive of this initiative.

In the past, the Parliament has been reluctant to endorse a European PNR for flight passengers as it could infringe personal privacy.

Meanwhile, the EU executive is assessing whether additional measures are needed to fight against the financing sources of the terrorist groups. It will also host an event on 3 December on how to address the radicalization of young people. The heads of various internet companies will be invited.

France has 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 terrorist 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.

  • 20 November: Justice and Home Affairs Council

Package of measures on firearms

European Security Agenda

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