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25th May 2019

Debate intensifies on stuck EU counter-terrorism bill

  • The European commission wants a data sharing agreement on passenger flight details for the EU (Photo: angeloangelo)

Debate has intensified on the European Parliament's handling of a controversial bill on tracking terrorists following the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris earlier this week.

Sceptical MEPs remain defiant, arguing the proposal - which collects people's flight details throughout the EU - risks eroding civil liberties without providing proof the system would stop terrorist attacks.

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“We need to talk about the problems investigators are having in connecting the dots and the information that is already there instead of passing new measures for the blanket collection of data from everyone,” German Green MEP Jan Phillip Albrecht told this website on Friday (9 January).

The bill in question, the EU passenger name records (PNR) law, has been stuck in parliament for three years after MEPs in the civil liberties committee voted it down in 2011.

But the Paris attack on the satirical magazine which left 12 people dead means parliament is under strong pressure to do move on the draft law.

The European commission has said it will “put all its weight behind these negotiations” and reiterated its plan to present a raft of new counter-terrorism measures as part of a larger new internal security strategy.

British conservative Timothy Kirkhope is the parliament’s lead negotiator. He is also one of its primary backers and is pushing to get his fellow MEPs to endorse it.

"We must put in place our own EU rules and standards ... as soon as possible," he said in November.

But the EU PNR proposal is likely to face an uphill battle.

Last year, the European Court of Justice invalidated the EU’s data retention directive – a different law meant to make identifying terrorists easier - on the grounds that blanket collection of personal data from people not suspected of any crime is disproportionate and a violation of fundamental rights.

The EU PNR proposal would force air carriers to transfer travel dates, travel itinerary, ticket information, contact details, and other data from international flights to the police in the EU.

Around 15 member states are already moving ahead with their own national PNR systems.

Most are co-financed by the European Commission, which has forked out around €50 million for the schemes.

The move has infuriated some MEPs who say the Brussels-executive is pre-empting the legislative process by creating a patch work of national PNR systems before the bill is even passed.

What would it take for an EU PNR?

“I am not against the retention of data. And most of us are not against the retention of data by police and security authorities,” said Albrecht.

Instead, the MEP wants a new draft that limits scope and retention periods to up to six months. A judge would need to determine to either renew the six-month retention period or cancel it altogether.

But Albrecht’s plan is unlikely to appease EU states who have been pushing the parliament to adopt the bill as is.

National governments say the system is needed to track the around 2,500 EU national foreign fighters who might return to the EU from Islamic militant fronts in Syria and Iraq.

Brussels, Madrid, and London terrorist attacks

Similar calls for greater security were made in the wake of the shooting last year at the Brussels Jewish museum, as well as the terror bombings in Madrid in 2004 and in London a year later.

The EU rushed through its data retention directive in record time after the incidents in the Spanish and British capitals on the promise that it would help prevent future attacks.

The parliament’s legal service on Thursday (8 January) advised MEPs to make sure that other draft laws- which would include the PNR proposal – adhere to the court’s ruling on proportionality and protecting fundamental rights.

EU passport-free travel at risk, Tusk warns

The president of the EU council warned border free travel in the EU could be undermined should lawmakers decide against stepping up security policies.

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