Parliament resists pressure on passenger data ahead of EU summit


Air Passengers [Flickr/gurmit singh]

Green and Liberal MEPs are resisting the proposal for a pan-European Passenger Name Records (PNR) database in the face of mounting political pressure before a summit this week in which heads of state will press them to adopt the measure urgently.

EU leaders meeting on Thursday and Friday (12-13 February) will consider the measure alongside proposals to tighten border crossings and police radicals on the internet in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris last month.

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

Greens and Liberal opposition to the move remained strong at the end of last week despite lobbying by interior ministers and security experts, leaving heads of state with a stand-off ahead of them after the summit.

French change of heart follows Paris attacks

On Tuesday (4 February) French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve met members of the civil liberties committee and urged them to adopt the proposal.

The French government has swung decisively in favour of PNR following the terrorist attacks last month, despite previous reservations.

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

Cazeneuve said that he came for a frank and balanced discussion which might contribute to the formulation of a compromise on the PNR proposal.

“I wanted to show that this is not an attack on civil liberties, especially in respect of data protection. And I wanted to demonstrate that the PNR would be capable of operating without jeopardising those values on data protection that we cherish,” Cazeneuve said of his meeting.

Outlining his opposition after that meeting, Jan Philipp Albrecht, the German MEP and shadow rapporteur on the paper for the Greens, said, “The foreseen five-year retention period [for data] flies in the face of Strasbourg and Luxembourg European courts, and if it is voted in it would represent a measure against treaty provisions, and that is the red line we will not cross.”

French Green MEP Eva Joly said that she had told Cazeneuve that the proposal should be targeted at a smaller target list of suspects – rather than applying to all citizens’ data.

Greens concern

The Greens will this week table an amendment to the proposal in Strasbourg calling for the PNR directive to apply only to a limited class of suspects, rather than having a blanket application.

“The problem with their proposal is that in so many cases the suspects were known to the authorities in advance, and they have yet to demonstrate in what way PNR would have changed things,” said Dutch Green MEP Judith Sargentini.

The Greens claim that while the Socialists & Democrats group remain strongly opposed to the PNR proposal in its current form, the Alliance of Liberals & Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group appear divided on the issue.

However this was fiercely denied by ALDE, which claimed to remain opposed to the proposal as it stands at the end of last week despite a further meeting designed to persuade the unconvinced.

On Wednesday evening (February 5) member states security experts met with key members of the civil liberties committee including the British rapporteur Timothy Kirkhope (European Conservatives and Reformists group) to explain how the PNR could assist them, but Greens and ALDE MEPs left the meeting unimpressed.

“They explained nothing that changed my mind,” ALDE shadow rapporteur Sophie in’t Veld told EURACTIV afterwards.

She said fundamental issues of trust surrounding data sharing needed to be addressed before provisions for collecting data are centralised.

Article 29 committee invervention

“Heads of state appear to want to agree a scheme that would enable them to fund data gathering from Brussels to build up silos of data in each member state, which may suit them politically but will not address security,” in’t Veld said.

Albrecht and in’t Velt both welcomed the interjection into the debate on Thursday (6 February) of the Article 29 working party – which is comprised of the various European data protection authorities– which issued an opinion reaffirming that the PNR proposal in its current form “is likely to seriously undermine the right to the protection of private life and personal data of all travellers as set out in Articles 7 and 8 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.”

“The Article 29 Working Party recalls that it is not in principle either in favour of or opposed to PNR data collection schemes. However, such an interference with the fundamental rights would be permissible only if its necessity was to be demonstrated and the principle of proportionality respected,” the opinion said.

It will come as another blow to European leaders who broadly support the measure and will push for it later this week.

Last month (13 January) the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, implored MEPs in Strasbourg to accept the PNR. 

“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 said.

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.

  • 12-13 February: Heads of state and government meet in Brussels for European Council summit

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