19th Jan 2018

MEPs clash with EU officials over foreign fighters

  • Authorities fear returning foreign fighters may launch attacks in the EU (Photo: Cocoabiscuit)

A handful of MEPs are accusing EU officials of scare-mongering the threat of foreign-fighters to push through security policies and agreements on passenger name records (PNR).

The European Commission’s director for internal security told MEPs in the civil liberties committee on Wednesday (5 November) that the “fatal attack at the Belgian Jewish museum in May of this year” shows the EU needs to finalise a new PNR agreement with Canada.

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The lead negotiator on the file Dutch liberal Sophie In’t Veld said the reference was disingenuous because the EU has been exchanging PNR data with Canada for the past five years already.

“Suggesting that with this agreement you can use PNR to identify foreign fighters and that we will all be safe, you even made the connection with the attacks in Brussels, which underlines that your justification is false,” she said.

The European commission and member states want the agreement finalised to create a broad legal basis but need the European Parliament to sign it off first.

Some of the articles in the draft agreement have riled the MEPs, including a disclosure clause that allows Canada to share the data to other countries on a case-by-case basis.

“So, we don’t need an agreement anymore with other third states like Russia, like China, or whomever, Canada can give it to them,” pointed out German Green MEP Jan Philip Albrecht.

The foreign fighter threat issue was brought up a second time in a separate debate at the committee with other top EU officials also on Wednesday.

The officials cited two differed on the number of foreign fighters.

Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator, said there were more than 3,000. Michele Coninsx, president of the EU's joint judicial authority Eurojust, said there were 2,000. Rob Wainwright, director of the EU’s police agency Europol, was more vague and said it was in the low thousands.

All agreed that PNR in general is needed to help combat the growing threat.

De Kerchove then said they are able to detect a large percentage of foreign fighters already in Iraq and Syria by just looking at Facebook.

“Many of these fighters are pretty narcissistic and they like to portrait themselves and put their pictures on the internet with a Kalashnikov,” said De Kerchove.

For the most part, De Kerchove said there was no need to propose new legislation but instead optimise things like the Schengen Information System.

Policy ideas already being explored to prevent people from joining the Jihadist groups include systematic electronic checks of documents - instead of the more standard visual checks - of EU citizens leaving and entering the passport-free Schengen zone.

Wainwright noted the number of annual terrorist attacks in Europe have actually decreased in the past year.

“Within that overall downward trend, it is important to acknowledge that the downward trend is mainly attributable to separatist terrorism becoming a smaller problem in the EU,” he said.

At the same time, Wainwright said the threat with “what we call religiously inspired terrorism” like the ISIL is increasing and then also referenced the Jewish attack in Brussels.

“This makes the terrorist threat we face right now probably the greatest and probably the most serious we have in the past ten years,” he said.

Last year, EU justice and home affairs ministers agreed to adopt a strategy to address the problem of foreign fighters.

This includes trying to profile those going to Syria and Iraq, how to prevent them from leaving in the first place, how to detect suspicious travel, and how to deal with retournees.

Data retention issue stymies EU air passenger bill

Attempts to finalise the EU-wide passenger name records bill by the end of year seems unlikely, given top MEPs' divided views on its conformity with a recent Luxembourg verdict.

Rights NGOs face fresh threats in EU

While ongoing crackdowns in Poland and Hungary have put the spotlight on rights groups, NGOs are now under new political and financial pressure across the EU, the Fundamental Rights Agency said.

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