Strasbourg (France) (AFP) – The European Parliament voted Thursday to force airlines to share passenger information with EU countries to help detect jihadists, ending five years of debate that intensified after the Paris and Brussels attacks.
The parliament in the French city of Strasbourg overwhelmingly adopted the Passenger Name Record (PNR) system after resolving privacy concerns raised after the European Commission, the executive of the 28-nation EU, first proposed the law in 2011.
“The EU PNR Directive will improve the safety and security of our citizens,” Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans and home affairs commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said in a statement.
They said November’s massacre in Paris and last month’s Brussels bombings had shown the “need for Europe to scale up its common response to terrorism” said that the new law would boost the response.
One of the two suicide bombers who struck Brussels airport on March 22, Ibrahim El Bakraoui, was deported by plane from Turkey to Europe without detection despite being a wanted man in Belgium.
The legislation, which also aims to the boost the fight against organised crime, passed with 416 votes for, 179 votes against and nine abstentions following heavy lobbying by France and other countries.
EU countries will now have two years to turn it into national law, but French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said he expected his country to start implementing it from the summer.
“The European Parliament has today united beyond its political differences to bring a very large majority behind these pieces of legislation,” the president of the parliament, Martin Schulz, said in a statement.
France spearheaded the drive for the US-style PNR system after the carnage in Paris that left 130 people dead, and made another push following the Brussels attacks, which were linked to those in Paris and killed another 32 people.
Belgian authorities meanwhile decided to keep in custody for another month six men charged with terrorist offences in connection to the Paris and Brussels attacks.
These include Belgian Mohamed Abrini, 31, the “man in the hat” who was seen in CCTV footage at Brussels airport next to Bakraoui and the other suicide bomber just before the attack.
Since his arrest last Friday, Abrini has been charged with “terrorist murders” in connection with events in both Brussels and Paris, where he is believed to have played a logistics role.
Also held for another month is Swedish national Osama Krayem, who was seen on CCTV with Bakraoui’s brother Khalid moments before the latter detonated a suicide bomb in a Brussels metro station near the EU headquarters.
Krayem has also been charged with terrorist murders since his arrest last Friday.
The four others remanded in custody for another month are Bilal E.M., Smail F, Ibrahim F. and Herve B.M.
– No ‘silver bullet’ –
The push for PNR has increased steadily in the last five months over fears that Europe is facing a growing jihadist threat.
“PNR is not a silver bullet, but countries that have national PNR systems have shown time and again that it is highly effective,” said Timothy Kirkhope, the British conservative MEP who steered the legislation through parliament.
Kirkhope has long defended a bloc-wide approach to sharing airline passenger data over a piecemeal approach among 28 national systems that could lead to dangerous gaps.
And the United States has also urged the EU to establish a PNR system where officials can detect patterns of suspicious behaviour through the sharing of passenger data.
The legislation requires airline firms to share passenger data — such as travel dates, itineraries, passport details and phone numbers — with authorities in EU destination countries.
The goal is to detect, for example, individuals who have not been flagged by authorities as presenting a threat but whose travel patterns raise suspicions.
It would then be up to one country to alert another or send a specific request for data from another country as part of an investigation.
It would apply to flights to and from destinations outside the EU, but member states could also apply them to flights within the bloc.
The data would be held for five years, though after six months key information would be “masked” and no longer accessible, barring a specific request.