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25th Jun 2022

US scores victory on EU air passenger screening

Earlier this week on Tuesday (27 March), MEPs in the civil liberties committee voted to recommend the European Parliament endorse the controversial passenger-screening (PNR) treaty in plenary in Strasbourg on 20 April.

For the US, and now for most members of the civil liberties committee, PNR is a vital tool in the fight against terrorism and international crime.

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  • Kirkhope: civil liberties objections are 'bogus' (Photo: shugfy)

A provisional agreement with the US exists since 2007, 'temporarily' legalising an information transfer required by the Americans ever since the terrorist attacks of 2001, obliging EU air carriers to make PNR data available for all persons who fly to and from the country. The new PNR pact would create a permanent legal structure for the current set-up.

The data is generally stored in airlines' reservation and departure control databases. It includes special meal requests (which can indicate religion) - which is blackened out however and can be accessed only in individual cases - contact information of family, friends and business associates, telephone and credit card details. Any additional notes or remarks made by customer service representatives behind, say, the ticket counter or at a call center is also forwarded to US authorities.

British Conservative MEP Timothy Kirkhope, a leading advocate, describes it as crucial in the fight against terrorism and organised crime and says the civil-liberties-related objections are "bogus."

In a statement following Tuesday's vote, he said the definitions of terrorist offences, trans-national crime and serious crime are clearer compared to the 2007 text.

"The committee has today shown common sense and pragmatism. I hope that this vote paves the way to a healthy show of support from the full parliament, and strong momentum to create our own PNR system for intra-EU flights," he said.

But for her part, Liberal Dutch MEP Sophie In 't Veld, who drafted the parliament's report on PNR, opposes it on grounds of data protection.

"By voting an agreement that is contrary to EU laws, and does not meet the minimum criteria set by parliament itself, the European Parliament loses credibility and fails its own citizens," she said in her statement.

Contradicting Kirkhope, In 't Veld says the terms of the agreement are so ambiguous that PNR information could be abused for non-terrorism-related purposes, such as immigration and border control. She also says the long data retention periods - up to 15 years - go too far compared to earlier proposals of three and a half years.

She even claims the US threatened to stop visa-free travel for EU citizens if MEPs rejected the treaty in its lobbying on the committee vote.

The US denies it. "Eligibility for the visa waiver programme is determined by US law on a country-by-country basis. In discussions over the US-EU PNR agreement, the US government has not raised the visa waiver programme," a spokesperson for the US told EUobserver.

Meanwhile, Barry Steinhardt, a former director the American Civil Liberties Union and now the interim chair of NGO, Friends of Privacy USA, also condemned the EU parliament's vote.

"Europe is being bullied by the strong-arm tactics of the US. It is abandoning its fundamental principles of privacy and respect for human dignity in the face of America's empty threat to prevent its citizens from flying to the US," he told this website by email.

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