24th Oct 2016

Dutch minister: Border cameras do not break EU law

  • Police will physically intercept cars when the cameras give a nod (Photo: Oscar in the middle)

The Dutch interior minister has told Brussels his new border cameras will catch illegal immigrants without breaking EU rules.

Gerd Leers defended the project - which has already seen military-grade surveillance technology installed on main roads from Belgium and Germany - in a letter sent to the European Commission on Friday (27 January) and seen by EUobserver.

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Citing chapter and verse of the EU's Schengen code on passport-free travel, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the Dutch constitution, its so-called Aliens Act and the privacy rules of its data protection regulator, he said the cameras are an alternative to more invasive policing.

He noted that under Schengen "internal borders should be crossed freely and in an unhindered way," meaning that "physical checks in border areas are [currently] carried out at random." But the new system "will ensure that the military police will run samples at the right time and right place as effectively as possible ... minimising the number of people of good faith who are needlessly harassed."

The cameras normally work by storing data on which models and colours of cars tend to cross the border at certain times of day.

If intelligence indicates that, for instance, white minibuses driven in convoys at night are being used to transport illegal workers, when the cameras see a suspicious convoy they automatically send an alert, triggering motorcycle police to go into action.

If authorities issue a so-called "amber" warning - as in the case of a missing child or a terrorist threat - the cameras step up a gear and send an alert when a car with a particular number plate comes into view.

Access to the data is controlled by the Royal Military Police and information on specific cars linked to specific people is only stored in amber cases, for up to five years.

Leers said the cameras are already in place in 10 locations in zones up to 20km inside Dutch territory - "[where] the chance of encountering illegal residence and migration crime is greatest." They will cover the remaining five highways from Belgium and Germany - the A76, A74, N280, A77 and A12 - by 31 May. Another six units are being mounted on police vehicles.

Leers' letter comes in response to a query from Stefano Manservisi, a senior EU official working for home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom.

Manservisi wrote to the Dutch ambassador to the EU, Pieter de Gooijer, on 17 November saying he found out about the cameras by chance "during informal contacts with the Dutch authorities."

His letter - addressed to "Dear Piet" - has a friendly tone. But it gave The Hague a clear deadline to come clean. "I would be grateful if you could provide your observations on the above concerns within 10 weeks," Manservisi said.

Malmstrom's spokesman on Tuesday told this website she will "analyse the elements of the reply before taking a position and decide whether further steps ... are required."

The Dutch project is the latest in a line of anti-Schengen-type measures adopted by EU countries with increasingly influential far-right political parties.

Denmark, France and Italy last year also tightenend up borders.

For his part, French President Nicolas Sarkozy - who is trying to scoop votes from far-right candidate Marine Le Pen ahead of April elections - warned in a major speech in December that EU passport-free travel is too free.

"Europe, which has to apply internally the principle of free movement but which does not control its external frontiers - that can't go on. Schengen must be reconsidered," he said.

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