French calls to rewrite Schengen code fall on deaf ears

François Hollande

French President François Hollande arrives at the EU summit. Brussels, 12 February. [European Council/Flickr]

European Union leaders called on Thursday for “systematic” checks on travellers entering the passport-free Schengen area but fell short of heeding to French and Spanish demands for rewriting the Schengen border code.

France, backed by Spain, had suggested that the agreement governing the 26-nation Schengen zone might be amended to permit more border checks on people suspected of terrorist links.

The demands were aired by French Interior Minister Bernard Cazneuve after a wave of violence in France last month that began with an attack on Charlie Hebdo.

But EU leaders, who were meeting in Brussels yesterday, said more could be done under the existing rules to strengthen checks on travelers entering or leaving the Schengen zone without changing the agreement or undermining the right to free movement within the passport-free area, which covers much of western Europe.

Stricter checks and greater information sharing

“We agree to proceed without delay to systematic and coordinated checks on individuals enjoying the right of free movement against databases relevant to the fight against terrorism,” the leaders said in a statement.

The leaders also agreed to greater information-sharing as part of a revamped counter-terrorism strategy following last month’s Paris attacks.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the Commission saw no need to revise the Schengen rules for now.

EU governments want to prevent Europeans going to fight with Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, fearing that they could carry out attacks on their return to Europe.

At present, only about 30% of passports presented by travellers entering or leaving the Schengen area are checked electronically to see if they are lost, stolen or counterfeit, officials said. The aim is to move that closer to 100%.

Only random checks are made to see if travelers entering the Schengen area appear in a police data base because they are wanted by authorities or suspected of terrorist links.

PNR to be adopted by end of 2015

The 28 EU leaders also urged the European Parliament to adopt quickly a plan for countries to share airline passenger data.

Lawmakers have resisted endorsing the system for sharing data, known as the Passenger Name Record (PNR), on the grounds it would infringe people’s privacy.

Under pressure to drop their opposition in the wake of the Paris attacks, the European Parliament pledged in a resolution on Wednesday to aim to finish work on the PNR law by the end of this year.

The leaders called for police to step up information sharing and for closer cooperation between EU members’ security services and in the fight against arms trafficking.

They urged EU governments to quickly implement stronger rules to prevent money-laundering and terrorist financing, and to effectively freeze assets used for financing terrorism.

They urged governments to remove Internet content promoting terrorism or extremism.

EU member states have reacted in different ways to the security threat highlighted by the Paris terrorist attacks, pointing to how difficult it would be to put in place a common European response to the challenge. 

The European Commission is reluctant to take a leading role, saying that only member countries are equipped with intelligence services and can assess the security threat. What follows is an overview of measures taken in across the bloc.

>>Read: Anti-terrorist measures in EU go in all directions

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