By BROOKS TIGNER
BRUSSELS – The European Commission wants to give law enforcement agencies (LEAs) access to the EU’s database of asylum-seeker fingerprints. But this faces deep scepticism from key members of the European Parliament (MEPs), who point to two big problems: the fundamental rationale of access and the risk of giving legitimate asylum-seekers a bad name.
“I am troubled by LEA access to the database of asylum seekers. There is a risk of stigmatisation,” British MEP Sarah Ludford, said during a 3 September meeting of the EP’s Civil Liberties Committee to review the proposal.
At issue is the Commission’s May 2012 draft regulation to give LEAs access to the EU’s database of asylum-seeker fingerprints known as Eurodac, created nearly a decade ago. Eurodac is used to prevent asylum candidates rejected in one EU country from slipping into another, an activity known as asylum shopping.
The draft is part of a broader package that aims to reach a compromise among EU legislative authorities on asylum policy. The member states and their LEAs want access to Eurodac to combat serious crime and terrorism. The EP wants more cross-border burden-sharing on asylum issues and consistent rules applied across Europe. The 27 EU nations received more than 300,000 asylum applications in 2011 – a jump of 16.2% compared to 2010.
To amend the Commission’s draft regulation the committee will vote on a report by MEP Monica Luisa Macovei on 27 November before it moves to a plenary vote within parliament. The Council is expected to reach its final position on the proposal by the end of September according to the EU’s current Cyprus Presidency, which hopes to wrap up the package’s wider political approval by the end of 2012.
That may be too rosy a timetable. Both Civil Liberties committee members and the EU’s European Data Protection Supervisor see serious problems with this approach. As the EDPS noted in its 5 September opinion on the subject, the necessity and proportionality of giving LEAs access to Eurodac “are not sufficiently demonstrated”.
Dutch Socialist MEP Cornelis de Jong put it less dryly in his remarks to the committee. “What is the rationale here?! It is highly unlikely that a terrorist or mafia member with a fingerprint set in one member state will ‘seek’ asylum in another,” he told the meeting. “We need an impact assessment with concrete examples showing why LEAs need access to Eurodac for serious crime suspects.”
Despite the cloud of doubts in the room, Matthias Oel, head of unit for asylum policy at the Commission’s Directorate-General for Home Affairs, defended the measure’s procedural foundations, noting that the justification for LEA use of Eurodac is very restricted.
“This would be an instrument of last resort, meaning that Eurodac could only be used after an LEA checks its own national database and then those of other member states. Only if that produces no results could they use Eurodac,” observed Oel.
“And it would work only on a ‘hit/no-hit basis’ [regarding a fingerprint match between police records and a Eurodac fingerprint set]. There would be possibility [for the LEA] to access or process Eurodac’s personal information if there was a match: the police force would have to ask for additional information,” he said, adding that “we know this is a sensitive issue that needs strong safeguards.”
Though the new Eurodac proposal says a member state can only turn to Eurodac after checking other national databases, it does not specify how many other Prum countries it must first query.
As Ludford pointedly observed, “the text doesn’t say that all other member state databases have to be queried. Even the Commission has said that a query involving only one other Prum signatory means the [initiating] country could then turn to Eurodac. This lets them off the hook [of doing a complete search with other police databases before exploiting Eurodac].” Having Europol act as a filter and intermediating body between national police forces and Eurodac could be one solution, she suggested.
Meanwhile, one signal coming from the committee meeting seems pretty clear: MEPs and the EDPS await concrete examples showing why police authorities should have access to Eurodac.
Impact assessment study, anyone?