Published: Thursday 14 February 2008

The Commission has proposed setting up a European border patrol system and a requirement for travellers to submit their fingerprints before entering the EU, in plans unveiled yesterday (13 February). 

Background:

Currently, anyone crossing a border into the EU’s 24 Schengen countries faces an entry and exit check at the very least, whether they are an EU citizen or not. Non-EU nationals face a more thorough check, including a search of databases. 

The EU has no centralised system for registering when visitors enter and exit the bloc, and the movements of those who leave the Union from a different member state to that of their point of entry are often not recorded.

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Under the proposals, all non-Europeans would have to submit biometric data to enter the EU even if they come from countries such as the United States and Canada, from which visa-free travel is currently permitted. 

The far-reaching package, designed to combat terrorism, illegal migration and organised crime, would also involve setting up a comprehensive electronic register of travellers’ biometric data.

Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini said travellers from outside the EU could face a biometric test as part of obtaining their visa while those not needing a permit would be checked on arrival. 

Moreover, a surveillance system (Eurosur) would be set up which would use state-of-the-art technology, including high resolution satellites and unmanned aircraft, to monitor remote areas for movements of migrants. 

There would also be further operations involving the EU’s border agency, Frontex. 

The measures would apply to the 24 nations within the EU’s Schengen zone for passport-free travel. All EU states except Britain, Ireland, Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria are part of the border-free area, to which non-EU members Norway and Iceland also belong. Britain said it was studying whether to opt into the arrangements.

"We cannot have mafia, or traffickers, or terrorists, using better technology than our police," said Frattini. 

A central aim of the measures is tackling the large number of illegal immigrants who in fact first entered the EU legally: "The factor number one is over-stayers in Europe," Mr. Frattini said. The Commission believes that more than half of all illegal immigrants enter the EU with valid paperwork but overstay their permitted time.

Under the proposed entry and exit register, an alert would be sent to all member states when a visa expired and no exit from the Schengen zone had been recorded. 

The Commissioner said the EU had to use "the most advanced technology to reach the highest level of security" to stop visitors overstaying their welcome in Europe and to prevent terrorists from entering. 

The plans would also allow for a Registered Traveller Programme to enable EU citizens to pass through customs with only random checks. 

That could be extended to include non-EU citizens on multiple visas. 

Mr Frattini said he hoped the reforms – if approved by all the EU member states – would be introduced between 2010-2015. 

The proposals will have to be agreed upon by member states and MEPs before they can come into effect. 

Positions:

German EPP spokesman on justice and home affairs Manfred Weber welcomed the Commission’s initiative. "The Frattini package is a good move and is going to enhance the protection of the external borders."

ALDE group leader and British MEP Graham Watson fears that a ‘Big Brother’ mentality is taking over in Europe. "Amassing information on travellers is a must for efficient border controls. Hoewever, we need tight checks on who can access this data to guarantee it will not be used for other purposes." 

British Liberal Democrat MEP and Parliament’s rapporteur on the Visa Information System, Sarah Ludford, warned of the potential for discrimination as a result of the entry-exit system. 

British Green MEP Jean Lambert criticised the package, saying that he sees "far-reaching proposals to compromise civil liberties without any proof of benefits". 

German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries said she was concerned that the proposals marked a step toward a state "that is already monitoring and policing citizens without prior cause." 

Data protection watchdogs, such as British Privacy International, heavily criticised the Commission’s proposals, saying the move could create a "Fortress Europe" for foreigners. 

Tony Bunyan of the civil liberties group Statewatch believes that the next stage of pan-European moves to tighten frontier controls is "a bridge too far". 

Next steps:

  • 1st half of 2008: Package is expected to be approved by the member states and the European Parliament. 
  • From 2009:  All EU passports will feature a digital fingerprint and photograph. 
  • From 2011: Non-EU citizens who apply for a visa will have to give their biometric details. 

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