Tough new border security measures have been agreed by European Union ministers in Brussels to ensure “systematic controls” on all travellers entering the passport-free Schengen zone.
The move follows the revelation that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian terrorist said to have planned the Paris attacks, slipped back into Europe undetected after first fleeing to join foreign jihadi fighters in Syria.
The French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said that the measures represented a “crucial” change. “We can’t take more time. This is urgent,” he said. “Terrorists are crossing the borders of the European Union.”
Britain’s Home Secretary, Theresa May, said the Paris attacks, which left 130 dead, showed the need for improved security across the EU. “There was a clear link between security of the EU’s external borders and security within the EU,” she said.
Citizens of the 26-member Schengen zone – which does not include Britain – have their documents visually checked by security officials whenever they leave or enter the area. The new proposals would upgrade the controls so that documents are systematically checked against criminal and security databases. “A Europe with no internal borders is only possible when external borders are controlled,” said the Austrian Interior Minister, Johanna Mikl-Leitner.
The checks will be bolstered by new technologies: the meeting’s conclusions called for “systematic registration, including fingerprinting, of all migrants entering into the Schengen area, and systematic security checks using relevant databases”. These include a watchlist with the details of 4,000 foreign fighters, a database of stolen documents and the Visa Information System.
The ministers also pushed for more co-ordination between Frontex, the EU border agency, and Europol, its joint police agency. Frontex will be asked to “assist the member states to tighten controls of external borders to detect suspicious travels of foreign terrorist fighters and smuggling of firearms, in co-operation with Europol”.
However, the EU was warned by three United Nations agencies that a sudden tightening of controls along the refugee route through the Balkans would worsen an increasingly untenable situation, stranding many people outdoors amid plunging temperatures. In a joint statement, the UN refugee and children’s agencies – UNHCR and Unicef – along with the International Organisation for Migration said that the restrictions would mean “people being profiled on the basis of nationality”.
Ministers also agreed to speed up efforts to collect and store data on air travellers within Europe, through the long-delayed passenger names’ records system. This has been blocked for several years by the European Parliament on data privacy grounds
Ms May said there needed to be “immediate progress” on obtaining access to passenger name records, and said Britain would press ahead with its own checks. “The negotiation has taken too long. That must be concluded,” she said.
She was echoed by Mr Cazeneuve, who urged MEPs to waive their objections. “Not a single EU citizen will understand why the parliament continues blocking this essential tool,” he said.
A call by the EU Home Affairs Commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos, for the creation of a new EU intelligence service was dismissed by the ministers, however.
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