By RAMONA KUNDT
BRUSSELS – As European Commission prepares to translate its October 2011 “smart borders” package into concrete measures before end-2012, questions linger about the package’s implications for the integrated system’s overall cost.
A European Parliament-commissioned study released in June casts doubt over the smart border plan’s estimated cost as well as the proportionality of immigration control objectives whether it will really ease travel for third-country nationals entering and leaving the EU. European Commission officials retort that the study’s allegations are overstated and that its alternative cost estimates are inaccurate.
The smart border package aims to monitor the movements of travellers and reinforce checks on non-EU nationals at the EU’s external borders via electronic means. It forms part of the EU’s wider border surveillance plan known as Eurosure.
Smart borders involves the introduction of an entry/exist system (EES) that would record in an electronic database the time and place of visitor entries and the length of their authorised stay. The data would then be made available to border control and immigration authorities across the EU27.
It will also involve a new “registered travellers programme” (RTP) to enable certain groups of frequent and trusted travellers (i.e. business travellers, family members etc.) from third countries to enter the EU using simplified border checks at automated gates. This would rest on prior pre-screening and approval of the candidate traveller. Both programmes would be based on a centralised database of traveller data to which all designated national authorities would have access.
The 83-page EP – “Borderline: The EU’s New Border Surveillance Initiatives” – was released in June and prepared by the London-based civil liberties organisation, Statewatch, and the European University Institute in Florence. It was broadly supported by the EP’s Green members and the EU’s own European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS).
One of the Commission’s justifications for EES is that it would deliver better statistics on travel patterns and immigration routes, which could be of great use to EU immigration policy. However, the Borderline study questions the necessity of such large scale data-gathering, a view equally shared by the Greens who warn that the EU would end up spending excessive millions of Euros just for statistical purposes.
The study also asserts that the EES would lead to significantly increased waiting times for third-country nationals desiring to enter the Schengen area, and backs its argument by pointing to the US border control system, known as “US VISIT”, which has increased entry procedures in the US by an average of 15 seconds per person.
As for RTP, the Commission argues that additional constraints on cross-border travel will be “offset”, or compensated, by allowing pre-vetted individuals to cross borders much faster than their unregistered counterparts. Green MEPs counter that it is not clear what the added value of this system would be compared to using multiple-entry visas with a long period of validity.
They see the RTP as “a massive and unnecessary data collection instrument” which would serve to create a new class of travellers. They also point to the implication that the 95 percent of all third-country nationals visiting the EU who do not register simply because they are not frequent travellers to the EU run the risk of being designated as “untrusted” travellers.
Regarding budgetary outlays, Borderline points to much higher costs than those put forward by the Commission. Whereas the latter puts the total cost of implementing all smart border measures at EUR 338.7 million, the study argues that the real cost will be EUR 873.7 million.
During a 3 September meeting of the EP’s Civil Liberties Committee, Green MEPs lambasted the discrepancy as “a huge gap” and misleading.
However, Commission officials at the committee meeting rebuffed the allegations. Speaking for Directorate-General Home, which will oversee Eurosur’s implementation, Oliver Seifferth, said “the Commission has read the Borderline report and we would have appreciated if they would have contacted us at least once about their assumptions. Their costs are extrapolated over 10 years and that is too much; it misleads.”
For example, he rejected the study’s accusation that DG-HOME’s cost estimate of EUR 99.6 million to support and link together national coordination centres is too low. “It is true that our costs are low, but they derive only from the minimum necessary to do this: just coordination costs and not C2 [command and control systems and equipment].” Conversely, he said “it looks like the costs of Eurosur may turn out to fall below the Commission’s [initial] estimates – and that includes the generous amounts we think that Frontex should receive.” Frontex is the EU’s border management agency in Warsaw.
The Borderline study also points to the lessons learned from implementation of the Schengen Information System II, which turned out to be at least five times more expensive than initial estimates. It warns that the decision to create the new smart-border databases will have strong budgetary consequences at a time of strict austerity. It says it is “unwise” for the EU to consider embarking on another large-scale IT system before its Visa Information System and Schengen Information System II have been successfully implemented.
That view was echoed by EDPS Peter Hustinx who says “there is a lack of reliable evidence to support the need for new systems”. He urged the Commission to “clarify the necessity and purpose” of the proposed databases.
Hustinx also pointed to smart borders’ intended use of biometrics, raising questions about their justification, accuracy of the systems’ matching mechanisms and the issue of double storage. “I could imagine starting the system without biometric functionality and only considering the introduction of such data in a second phase after an evaluation of the system, several years after its ‘go-live’ [launch phase],” he said.
Travellers requiring visas already have to provide excessive personal data such as fingerprints and face-scans. Moreover, under the Schengen Implementation Convention, visa holders as well as visa-exempted travellers can already be prevented from re-entering the EU if they previously overstayed.
Because many MEPs view the smart borders initiative as an excessive, disproportionate and overpriced measure, the European Parliament can be expected to closely scrutinise the proposal to make sure that taxpayer money is not being used to erect a “roadmap to a virtual fortress Europe”, as one MEP put it during a policy debate in June.