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Commission proposes ESTA-style European Travel Information and Authorisation System to scrutinise visa-exempt travellers


BRUSSELS – On 16 November, the European Commission unveiled its draft regulation for a “European Travel Information and Authorisation System” (ETIAS) requiring all travellers from visa-exempt third countries to apply for an online authorisation before entering the Schengen region.

In the wake of terror attacks in Brussels, Paris and elsewhere, EU officials are determined to be seen crafting a policy strategy that strengthens European border security. The ETIAS programme – based upon the US’s Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) – is intended as a crucial part of that strategy. Complementing the EU’s draft “Entry-Exit” system that mandates fingerprinting and photos before a passenger enters an airport’s secure area, ETIAS would screen travellers before they arrived at the airport. Traveller data would be cross-checked with national authorities, Europe, and other entities before a passenger is cleared.

If approved by the Council and Parliament, the ETIAS regulation would require some three years to implement. Dimitris Avramopoulos, EU Commissioner for migration and home affairs, said the programme would cost EUR 212 million, with an annual operating cost of EUR 85 million. A five-euro application for travellers would cover this cost, although ETIAS would be free for those under the age of 18. A successful application would be valid for a five-year period.

The questions ETIAS applicants must answer seek to determine if they are a potential security threat or an irregular migration risk, while ensuring a smooth experience for most travellers. Avramopoulos estimated that 95 to 98 percent of applicants would experience no delay, with only one to two percent having their applications referred to national security authorities. A few would be referred to law enforcement agencies and Europol. The EU agency responsible for large IT systems known as “eu-LISA” would develop the project, and the European Border and Coast Guard would manage it, with Europol retaining a watch list of problematic passengers.

“I think of the emphasis being put on fighting terrorism as simply being a sign of the times we live in,” Frank McNamara, a policy analyst in the European Policy Centre’s European migration and diversity programme, told SECURITY EUROPE. “The truth though… is that we have very little evidence of national security threats that go beyond ‘ordinary’ crime that will be seriously impacted by ETIAS.”

McNamara says that another Commission motivation may be financial. “Despite being planned to cost less than America’s equivalent programme [ESTA], it will represent a serious intake [of funding] for the Union,” he said.

Also on 16 November, the Commission presented its second progress report on “an effective and genuine security union”. The report tracks, among other things, a revision of the EU’s Firearms Directive that seeks to help remove Kalashnikov-style rifles from general circulation.

Its verdict was not encouraging. Regarding the directive’s revision, work remains “deadlocked by attempts to water down the proposals… [whose completion should] be finalised before the end of [November 2016] if we are to honour the memory of the Paris victims” killed a year ago. The end of November passed without word of an agreement, however.

The report urges quicker progress not only revising the firearms law but on the EU’s Directive on Combatting Terrorism, and for amending the Schengen Borders Code to identify returning foreign fighters by introducing systematic checks of all persons crossing the EU’s external borders. It also described reinforcing the Commission-supported “Radicalisation Awareness Network” designed to catch vulnerable young people before they fall victim to extremist propaganda and recruitment.

     THE UPSHOT: When assessing the benefits of a security reform, it’s good to ask the most obvious question: by addressing the information gaps and security shortfalls that made atrocities like the Paris attacks and Brussels bombings possible, will the proposed reform help to prevent similar attacks in the future?
     In that regard, ETIAS is a puzzler. The Commission presents it primarily as a security measure intended to help catch terrorists before they commit atrocities. But European nationals carry out the vast majority of such attacks, and there are few, if any, cases of terrorists masquerading as visa-free tourists. (A 2012 bus bombing in Bulgaria was carried out by a dual French-Lebanese citizen, although his alleged accomplices held Australian and Canadian passports.) Avramopoulos also spoke of using ETIAS to detect those at high risk of ‘irregular migration’, but such travellers are visa-exempt precisely because they are low-risk.
     Perhaps the Commission is thinking ahead. Just because visa-free terrorists aren’t much of a problem now, doesn’t mean they won’t become one later. But we suspect the real motivation may be an institutional desire to collect more data on travellers, and then to use that data for a variety of purposes, including the fight against organised crime.
     Using data-mining techniques to connect seemingly unconnected events could help prevent terrorism, particularly given the link between extremism and petty criminality. But there is a danger in crying ‘security!’ for every information need. Europeans want full disclosure and transparency from their institutions. If the aims of the ETIAS programme are greater than so far disclosed, the Commission should come clean on that issue.


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