EU Travelers Face Stricter Passport Checks to Halt Terror

European travelers returning home from abroad may face longer waits at airports as governments sought tighter border controls in response to the Paris terror attacks.

European Union leaders agreed at a meeting in Brussels on Thursday that last month’s attacks showed the need to combat the flow of radicalized returnees into the continent’s 26-nation border-free travel zone.

“We must stop our nationals from traveling to war zones, joining terrorist groups such as the so-called Islamic State,” European Parliament President Martin Schulz told the summit, according to a speech e-mailed by his office. “The danger that these foreign fighters then return to Europe in order to carry out attacks is a very real one.”

Three coordinated terror attacks in the French capital that claimed 20 lives, including the three self-proclaimed Islamist gunmen, prompted EU governments to seek ways to catch citizens who travel home after being radicalized abroad.

Travelers on EU passports entering the so-called Schengen area, which does not include the U.K., often escape extensive identification checks.

“Schengen is an external border so that we don’t need internal borders,” French President Francois Hollande told reporters in Brussels after the summit. “But in order for it to work the external border must be controlled, so that we can verify who leaves and who comes.”

Balancing Act

Leaders agreed to bring in “systematic and coordinated checks” on EU travelers entering the Schengen zone “against databases relevant to the fight against terrorism, based on common risk indicators,” according to an EU statement agreed at the meeting.

This would bring the EU closer to the U.S. immigration checks, where border guards check the passport of every American citizen returning to the country, Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s counter-terrorism chief told reporters.

As EU rules are currently applied, border guards at external frontiers can check EU travelers against security databases if they have reason to suspect them, but don’t do so as a matter of course.

It’s unclear how far national authorities could go under existing EU law. Leaders asked the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, for “operational guidelines.” Governments want the EU to explore the need for a law change as a possible next step to allow permanent checks of EU travelers entering Europe against police databases, Kerchove said.

EU policy makers have been wary of a wholesale revision of the law because out of concern it could lead to the breakup of the border-free area that they consider a cornerstone of European unity.

Anti-EU politicians, including Marine Le Pen, head of France’s anti-immigration National Front, have called for passport controls to be reinstated at Europe’s internal borders, saying it’s too easy for terrorists to travel undetected.

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