By PATRICK STEPHENSON, with BROOKS TIGNER
BRUSSELS – As territories of the so-called Islamic State continue to dwindle in Syria and Iraq, EU member-states are only too aware of the danger of violent extremists carrying out revenge attacks on European soil. Members of the Schengen visa-free region are particularly vulnerable, given that once terrorists penetrate the region’s external borders, they can travel with little hindrance to any point within the Schengen area.
But terrorism is hardly the EU’s only concern. Migrants from Asia and Africa continue striving to reach Union shores. Although their numbers are greatly reduced from 2015, the EU’s border agency Frontex says that in September 2017 alone, there were nearly 14 000 detections of illegal border crossings on the four migratory routes into the EU. For the year to date, the agency counts some 156,000 illegal border crossings.
New EU initiatives are in the pipeline to deal with these developments. On 25 October the European Parliament approved the EU’s proposed entry/exit system (EES) to register information on non-EU nationals that cross Schengen borders. The system will make if far easier for EU border officials to spot and detain those with no right to enter or, within Europe, to more easily find those who over-stay their visa period.
Then on 7 November, the EP’s Civil Liberties Committee voted to update the Schengen Information System (SIS) database and its 46 million identity documents.
Unlike Europe’s fragmented, passport-based systems, the EES will register both numerical and biometric data, including travel documents, fingerprints, facial images, and time and place of entry or exit. It will also replace manual passport-stamping, while its scope will apply not only to those requiring a visa but to visa-exempt travellers as well. With a price tag of EUR 480 million, the system is expected to be operational by 2020.
Its proponents argue that the EES will be a quantum leap over old legacy systems based largely along national lines. “The Entry/Exit system will allow for quicker and safer border crossings,” Spanish member of the EP Agustín Díaz de Mera García Consuegra said. “It will also help to detect terrorists and other criminals hiding behind a false identity.”
According to the European Commission, traveller data stored within the EES will be retained for three years. If a traveller overstays his visa, the data will be retained for five years. EU countries will be able to consult the database during investigations of terrorist activity or other serious criminal offences. The data will also be available to Europol. While border control officers and visa-issuing authorities will be able to check the database, national asylum authorities will have no access to it.
By contrast, police and border officers consult the Schengen Information System to search for wanted individuals or objects inside the visa-free region. But SIS has had a hard time tracking people, particularly those who overstay.
“In 2016, only 46 percent of the people required to leave the EU returned to their home countries,” Dutch MEP Jeroen Lenaers said. “If we are not able to enforce returns of persons who do not have the right to stay, it will be difficult to maintain support among our citizens” for the EU’s common asylum system.
The EP’s Civil Liberties Committee approved several EU regulations to the SIS. These include:
- obliging Schengen member-state to swiftly share with other member states the details of a terrorist attack;
- a preventive alert for children at high risk from parental abduction;
- an automatic alert for an individual when one member-state bans that person from entering the region;
- alerts for so-called “unknown wanted persons” whose fingerprints are found at crime scenes; and
- compulsory sharing of fingerprint, palm print, facial image and DNA data with all national law enforcement authorities.
Two other big improvements stand out. Until now, the SIS was based on alphanumeric identification such as an individual’s name and birth date – an ID method easily foiled by criminals using multiple forged identities. In addition, Schengen countries were not required to inform fellow member-states voluntarily that they had returned a migrant to his or her country of origin. That information was only shared voluntarily.
With its updating legislation, SIS will expand to include more sophisticated identification techniques such as biometric recognition. And the member states will be obliged to enter all return decisions into the SIS system. The new requirement should lead to better tracking of irregular migrants who try to re-enter the Schengen area after their repatriation.
But even assuming that Schengen and the EES seamlessly start zipping information after 2020 to Frontex, Europol and other stakeholders, their effectiveness will still depend overwhelmingly on the comportment and attention to detail of the member states.
If the terrorist-related or other information they feed into Schengen and the EES is incomplete, outdated or not properly cross-checked, it doesn’t matter how many EU regulations oblige them to send it quickly to other EU countries. Those are the problems that face national law enforcement agencies across Europe, with some LEAs better resourced and more disciplined than others. That is where EU funding should be deployed in the future: to shore up the weaker links.