- Greece bows to EU patrols in Aegean Sea to handle refugees
- Planned air-passenger tracking echoes U.S. moves after 9/11
The European Union took steps to improve the policing of its internal and external borders Friday, both to fight terrorism and manage the flow of refugees from Middle Eastern wars.
Greece, on the bloc’s southeastern flank, gave up its resistance to EU-flagged patrols to handle asylum-seekers in the Aegean Sea as countries further north laid the groundwork for future two-year suspensions of passport-free internal travel, a popular system in much of Europe since 1995.
In another anti-terror measure, EU interior ministers meeting in Brussels backed long-delayed, U.S.-inspired plans for tracking passenger data on flights to, from and within the bloc. Officials said the restrictions of some liberties was the price for keeping the 28-nation EU in working order.
“For free internal borders we need functioning external border protection, and it is falling short,” German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere told reporters. “We’re running out of time.”
Greece agreed to partially handover border policing and migrant registration to EU teams after months of criticism of its lax refugee policies. Some governments had threatened to shut the country out of the passport-free travel zone due to its leaky external frontier.
Struggling with the aftermath of the euro debt crisis, Greece found itself in the middle of another European crisis this year as it was overwhelmed with Syrian and Iraqi refugees. It let many travel further north, creating chaotic scenes across the Balkans and into Austria and southern Germany.
“Greece is finally ready to take responsibility in protecting the external border,” Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said. She called the concession “an important step in the right direction.”
Greece appealed late Thursday for the EU’s Frontex agency to send border guards to its islands in the Aegean, the first EU stopping-off point for refugees fleeing from Syria through Turkey. It also called for the deployment of more Frontex officers on its northern border with the Republic of Macedonia, the agency said in a statement.
In a separate request, Greece invoked EU provisions normally used for natural disasters, calling for European assistance in providing food, shelter and medical care for refugees, the EU said.
Greece’s submission took the heat out of a political debate that had echoed some of the north-south name-calling from the height of the debt crisis. It failed, however, to halt the discussion over future, longer-term interruptions of passport-free travel between 22 EU countries and four outside the bloc.
Five countries including Germany and Sweden have already reimposed border checks for up to six months to cope with incoming refugees. Discussions on Friday revolved around lengthening that period to as much as two years if there were “serious deficiencies” at the bloc’s external frontiers.
Suspects on Planes
The air-passenger tracking law offered a lesson in the slow pace of the multinational decision-making machinery. First proposed in 2007, it was held up by the European Parliament on personal-privacy grounds and was in limbo until the Paris mass murders of Nov. 13 gave it new urgency.
Even now, the law proposed will stop short of forcing national governments to share or pool their data, a potential flaw in a system to hunt down suspects who slip across borders. It could also take a year for the monitoring system to get going.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve called the legislation “indispensable.” He said, “Terrorists take flights within Europe and we have to be able to trace them.”
The Parliament remains a stumbling block. While a committee of EU lawmakers endorsed the compromise on Dec. 2, some have threatened to object when it comes before the full assembly. A Parliamentary committee will weigh in on Dec. 10, followed by a plenary vote in early 2016.
While the European assembly limited the law to scheduled air traffic to and from the EU, it allowed national governments to decide they will capture data on internal flights as well. The record keeping will go beyond airlines to include charter flights.
Questions of data privacy, frequently more sensitive in Europe than in the U.S., dominated the final discussions. Parliament put a six-month limit on the retention of data such as name, address, frequent flier and credit-card numbers that could be used to pick individual passengers out of a crowd.
After that, the personal identifiers will be “anonymized” or “masked out,” though they could be retrieved on a judge’s order. Governments will store the data for a total of five years.