Donald Tusk urges Parliament to accept European PNR

Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, is a firm supporter of the European PNR. [Platforma Obywatelska RP/Flickr]

The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, has implored MEPs to accept the creation of a single, shared data base of personal information on air passengers arriving in, or leaving, the EU. EURACTIV France reports

The former Polish Prime Minister asked the European Parliament to review its position on the single passenger name register (PNR) within the European Union, following the jihadist attacks that claimed the lives of 17 victims in France last week.

France has appealed to MEPs to set aside their fears over privacy, unblock the project and treat it as a matter of urgency.

Donald Tusk addressed the hemicycle, saying “this Parliament has rightly taken seriously its role in defending the freedoms of European citizens. But I also ask you to help us protect the security of those who elected this chamber”.

Fragmented PNR systems

“If we do not manage to establish a single European PNR, we will end up with 28 national systems; a patchwork with holes. They would interfere with the privacy of citizens but would not properly protect their security,” the Council President added.

The European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee, swayed by the left and the Liberals, rejected the Commission proposal in April 2013 by 30 votes to 25. The dossier has been stuck in the committee stage ever since.

According to the French Minister for the Interior, Bernard Cazeneuve, the need to create a PNR database in Europe, similar to the one in operation in the United States, formed a major part of the discussions between the EU member states and the US, held in Paris on 11 January.

Parliament unconvinced

Members of the European Parliament are remaining cautious about adopting the PNR, despite the new momentum it has gained.

The Spanish Socialist MEP Enrique Guerrero Salom warned against making decisions at a highly emotional time, saying the PNR legislation “should be debated calmly and not in the heat of the latest events”.

Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the Liberal group, was equally judicious in his response. He said the Parliament would “need a data protection directive before we approve the PNR”.

The French National Front reasserted its hostile position to the proposed PNR. “We refuse to abandon any sovereignty. We refuse to have anything decided for us. We should be able to decide who enters and who leaves our borders,” Marine Le Pen said at a Press conference.

Contrary to the other parties, the EPP stated its intention to support the proposed European PNR. The group’s President, the German member Manfred Weber said “we ask the Socialist and Liberal members to stop blocking” this project. “Of course we need draconian standards for personal data protection, but European investigators need access to information to carry out their work,” he added.

French U-turn on PNR

In France on Tuesday, Manuel Valls called for the European Parliament to vote in favour of an EU-wide PNR system. “I solemnly ask the European Parliament to vote for the PNR” he said. The Prime Minister received a stirring round of applause from French MPs, despite performing a U-turn on his previous position.

>> Read: Emergency summit of European Interior Ministers in Paris

Socialist MPs in France and at the European Parliament have so far rejected the project of collecting data on all EU flight passengers. The Greens and the Socialists are afraid that misuse of this data could hamper civil liberties. 

Timothy Kirkhope MEP (ECR group), the European Parliament's rapporteur on the Passenger Name Records (PNR) proposal, said "I want an agreement that safeguards lives and liberties by offering stronger data protection rules whilst also making it much harder for a radicalised fighter to slip back into Europe undetected. EU heads of government and home affairs ministers would not ask for this agreement unless there were a clear and present need for it. I will work with my colleagues in the committee to get the broadest agreement as possible. There are a few people in the committee who will never be convinced, but I believe there is a majority that can be found for a revised proposal."

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 Nazis.

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.

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