19th Mar 2018

US and UK nationals to be caught in EU border dragnet

  • Etias applies to all air, land, and sea borders throughout the Schengen member states. (Photo: Marta Arribas, Madrid, Spain)

US nationals and British citizens, after Brexit, will be among the millions of travellers whose personal details will be collected in a new EU dragnet to catch security threats.

Any visa-free travellers who want to go to a passport-free Schengen EU state will, three years from now, first have to answer more than two dozen questions on their education, work, and health-related issues.

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  • Switzerland, Norway, and Iceland also in the Schengen zone (Photo: UR-SDV)

Police and border guards will have access to the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (Etias).

"This system will help identify persons, who may pose security threats, also irregular migration," said EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avrampolous in Brussels on Wednesday (16 November).

"The new automated system will cross-check this information against all our relevant data," he said.

Etias will link up to around a half dozen existing databases in an effort to flag possible trouble makers.

That includes “relevant data" stored at the EU police agency, Europol, and Interpol's stolen and lost travel documents database.

The change is part of broader EU plans to improve border security in the wake of terrorist attacks and amid anti-EU populism over the migration crisis.

It risks drawing a new line between the US and EU at a fragile moment in relations and on top of existing disputes on visa-waivers.

It also underlines the reality of post-Brexit UK relations.

Not everybody thinks it is needed and it is unlikely to be operational by its three-year deadline.

German Green MEP Jan Phillip Albrecht, who spearheaded data protection reform in the EU, said: “What is missing [rom Etias] is the assessment and quick exchange of data about suspects and high risk individuals. The new system won’t solve this problem, but will be another instrument of surveillance of travellers”.

One EU source described the three-year timeline as ambitious.

Frans Timmermans, the commission first vice-president, also warned that it was “technically terribly complicated …This is about the personal data of people wanting to travel to the European Union, so we want to get it right.”

When it does enter into life, Etias will charge every EU visitor €5 in an online pre-screening process that should, according to commission estimates, only take a few minutes.

The registration fee spans five years, at which point, the traveller will have to apply again. Those under 18 will be exempt.

Currently, 1.4 billion people from around 60 countries benefit from visa-free travel to the EU.

The commission said the registration fee will offset an estimated development cost of €214 million and another €85 million in Etias annual operational costs.

EU leaders, at a Brexit-crisis summit in Bratislava in September agreed that border security was a top priority.

Etias aside, they aim to overhaul EU databases and, eventually, to screen every EU entrant, including EU nationals, at some 1,800 crossing points.

Databases that don't talk

Border guards currently have access to three databases, the Visa Information System (VIS), Schengen Information System (SIS), and Interpol’s stolen and lost travel documents database (SLTD).

People who require visas to enter are placed into VIS. It allows a border guard to cross-check fingerprints to verify the person's identity matches their ID.

The border guard can check SIS to verify if the person has an entry ban, an arrest warrant, or is reported missing.

He can also check Interpol’s SLTD to see if the ID has been reported stolen or missing.

Not every member state is using the systems properly, however.

Some enter bad data, some do not enter any data, while just half of EU states bother to cross-check visa information.

Systems are often not interoperable, making the process harder.

Entry-Exit and PNR

The EU wants to impose yet another system, called Entry-Exit, described as a tool to track people who overstay their 90-day visas, which is to be launched in 2020.

Co-legislators at the EU parliament and the EU Council, representing member states, are currently negotiating the project.

They passed earlier this year an EU passenger name records (PNR) bill in a stated effort to crack down on foreign fighters.

Few EU states have done anything to implement the sharing of airline passengers' data, despite receiving tens of millions of euros from the EU budget.

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