Commentary: Should the U.S. Follow Europe's Lead?

By John Rossant

In Germany, it's called a Personalausweis. In Spain, the little card is a DNI, a Documento Nacional de Identidad, and in France, the high-tech ID is a Carte d'Identité Nationale. Different names for the same thing: national identity cards. If you want to stay above the law in most of Europe, you'd better have one on you at all times. If you don't, you might risk a night in jail.

While the U.S. wrestles with how much government could or should infringe on personal rights and privacy in the post-September 11 world, that issue was resolved long ago across the continent. When it comes to individuals vs. government, government invariably wins. "In Europe, the stress has traditionally been on the importance of police and government intervention," says University of Paris law professor Jean-Pierre Dubois. Compared with the U.S., he adds, "liberty is less absolute."

GREATER CURBS. In the wake of September 11, governments are looking to curb those liberties even more. France, already one of the most over-policed countries in the European Union, will soon be setting new and controversial standards in circumscribing citizens' rights. Under draft legislation being rushed through Parliament, police will get vastly expanded powers to search cars and houses without warrants until the end of 2003. What's more, all telecommunication operators and Internet service providers will have to keep records for one year, giving French gendarmes, for example, the ability to examine what Web site you may have looked at months earlier. "Some aspects of these new laws contravene fundamental human rights," charges state attorney Raphael Grandfils, an official of a large French magistrates' union.

The big question is whether the European trade-off between liberty and security is worth it. True, there are indications that a more liberal use of wiretaps and surveillance has given European police forces a headstart on their American counterparts in understanding terrorist cells lurking in their midst. But from the Baader-Meinhoff gang which stalked West Germany in the 1970s to the ETA Basque nationalists in Spain and the Real IRA in Britain, Europe has hardly immunized itself against terrorist violence--despite the powers lavished on law enforcement bodies. And some fret that increased use of racial and religious profiling could exacerbate tensions.

Europeans defend their record, of course. They point out correctly that privacy is better protected in Europe than in the U.S. Europe's experience with authoritarian regimes has made many countries sensitive about how personal information, especially regarding political opinions and finances, can be used. In Germany, for example, access to personal databases is limited by the country's data protection provision, the Datenschuz. In 1995, the European Commission enacted the Data Protection Directive, which restricts how information can be used.

Yet privacy protection does not counteract the advantages of the police--not in countries where concepts such as habeas corpus are largely unknown. True, the European Convention on Human Rights grants many protections, such as freedom of expression and the right to counsel--except when overridden by "public interests." Says Simon Davies, director of Privacy International in London: "The culture of respect for government in Europe gives the default right to government rather than to the citizen,"

Take the Netherlands, with its reputation as the most freewheeling state in Europe. Its citizenry are in fact among the most closely surveilled. All Dutch citizens are obliged to have the "SoFi," the social-fiscal number for tax and identification purposes. Dutch police perform on average four times as many wiretaps per year as federal authorities in the entire U.S. "The Dutch people are compliant, and the surveillance system is efficient. The Netherlands model is the dream of law enforcement officials everywhere," says Davies. Before September 11, Americans would have roundly rejected the invasions of privacy the Dutch accept as routine. Now, when it comes to security, the New World may yet follow the Old World's cue.

Europe regional chief Rossant covers European politics.

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