Wednesday

21st Feb 2024

MEPs break deadlock on airline passenger bill

  • France wants systematic document checks of all EU nationals entering and leaving the EU (Photo: afagen)

Police are a step closer to gaining broad access to the personal details of anyone flying in or out of Europe after EU lawmakers on Wednesday (11 February) agreed to break a deadlock on a stalled EU bill.

Euro-deputies in Strasbourg voted on a resolution with an amendment to reach an agreement on the EU’s passenger name (EU PNR) record bill by the end of the year.

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  • A carte blanche to scale-back personal freedoms? (Photo: johnnyalive)

"This is the most positive statement the European Parliament has given on PNR in several years,” said the assembly’s lead negotiator on the file, UK conservative Timothy Kirkhope.

The timing is of importance because EU leaders will be discussing the issue with parliament president Martin Schulz at the summit in Brussels on Thursday afternoon.

Member states want the bill, set to cost some €500 million by commission estimates, signed by the European parliament as soon as possible.

First proposed in 2011 and then blocked two years later by MEPs in the civil liberties committee, the bill requires airlines to hand over details like travel dates, travel itinerary, ticket information, contact details, the travel agent at which the flight was booked, means of payment used, seat number and baggage information.

Civil liberty defenders question whether the level of scrutiny and proposed five-year retention period have any real impact on tracking down potential terrorists in the first place.

They say emphasis should instead be placed on tracking known suspects and on improving information sharing among police and security services instead of casting indiscriminate surveillance dragnets that underpins the bill.

Surveillance versus rights

Last year the European Court of Justice ruling outlawed, in a separate crime-fighting EU law, the indiscriminate data collection of people not suspected of any crime.

The point was underlined earlier this month by the EU's main privacy regulatory body, the article 29 working party.

They said EU PNR data processing “is likely to seriously undermine the right to the protection of private life and personal data of all travellers”.

Possible violations of such rights may prompt the EU’s top court to once again reconsider whether the proposed law violates those rights. If it does, the Court may decide to scrap the law altogether.

Fifteen member states have or are in the process of setting up their own PNRs.

Monday’s resolution added an amendment for the European Commission to consider the impact of last year’s Luxembourg court decision and "encourage" member states to come to an agreement on the protracted legislative file on data protection reforms.

But not everyone is happy with the Greens describing the latest twist in the drawn out debate as “a carte blanche to scale-back personal freedoms”.

The centre-right (EPP), the liberals (ALDE), the socialists (S&D), and the conservatives (ECR) all backed the resolution and its amendment.

The breakthrough was orchestrated, in part, by intense pressure from member states following the Paris attacks in January and by lobbying efforts by French interior minster Bernard Cazeneuve.

Schengen and EU summit

Summit leaders are also set to discuss revising the EU’s Schengen borders code. The code sets out minimum and random checks on EU citizens leaving or entering the EU.

The French want the code revised so that everyone is forced to undergo systematic checks as part of a larger effort to crack down on so-called foreign fighters.

“The question is, and this is the big dilemma, whether it is enough to have a more efficient proper implementation of the existing legislative framework or if there is a need for targeted amendments on the Schengen border code," said an EU source.

But systematic checks have received a cool reception from the European commission, which wants member state authorities to make better use of existing tools.

Some national governments are pushing ahead with plans to start invalidating the travel documents of suspected terrorists.

The commission backs the idea and has since modified the EU’s large-scale information system on police and border control, the Schengen information system (SIS), to flag invalidated documents of suspected terrorists.

EU leaders want tighter border controls

EU leaders at a summit on Thursday agreed that there should be tighter controls at the EU's borders and urged MEPs to move forward on an air passenger information bill.

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