At a special meeting on responses to the Paris terrorist attacks, European Union interior and justice ministers have agreed that controls at the bloc’s external borders should be stepped up, with EU citizens to be among those subject to “systematic and coordinated checks”.
The ministers are asking the European Commission to present a proposal on revising the Schengen rules accordingly.
Along with other measures agreed to at the November 20 meeting, EU ministers want the changes brought into effect “as soon as possible”.
The Schengen visa zone includes 22 out of 28 EU member states as well as Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. EU member states that are not part of the Schengen zone are Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland, Romania and the UK.
Currently, EU nationals entering or leaving the Schengen zone are subject only to minimum checks to confirm their identities on the basis of travel documents. More extensive checking is done only on a random basis.
The new proposal is expected to tighten controls so that documents of EU citizens are systematically checked against criminal and security databases.
The concept behind the change is to enable checking for EU passport-holders who are returning from Middle East conflicts and those who are potential jihadists.
Before the meeting, France’s prime minister Manuel Valls said that some of the culprits in the Paris attacks had taken advantage of the EU’s liberal borders to enter Europe, and he added the Schengen zone would be in danger if EU leaders did not make an effort to improve border security.
France’s interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve told a media conference after the ministers’ meeting that his country would maintain the border controls it established on November 13 “as long as the terrorist threat makes it necessary”.
The ministers agreed to upgrade the Schengen member states’ border control systems (electronic connection to the relevant Interpol databases at all external border crossing points, automatic screening of travel documents) by March 2016.
The EU countries agreed, in the context of the current migration crisis, to carry out a systematic registration, including fingerprinting, of third country nationals illegally entering the Schengen area, whether migrants or applicants for international protection, and perform systematic security checks by using relevant databases.
EU police agency Europol will deploy “guest officers” to the hotspots in support of the screening process, in particular by reinforcing secondary security controls.
The meeting agreed to strengthen the control at the external borders which are most exposed, in particular by deploying, when the situation so requires, rapid border intervention teams (RABITs) and police officers in order to ensure systematic screening and security checks.
There was a strong emphasis on information-sharing by the agencies of member states about suspected terrorist foreign fighters, inputting this into the Schengen Information System, among other steps.
The ministers also agreed on the “urgency and priority” to finalise an ambitious EU Passenger Name Record agreement before the end of 2015, which should include internal flights in its scope, provide for a sufficiently long data period during which PNR data can be retained in non-masked-out form and should not be limited to crimes of a transnational nature.
French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve said that data retention of PNR should be one year, not one month.
The interior and justice ministers are calling on the European Commission to present proposals to strengthen, harmonise and improve the powers of, and the cooperation between Financial Intelligence Units and ensure their fast access to necessary information, “in order to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the fight against money laundering and terrorist financing in conformity with Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommendations, to strengthen controls of non-banking payment methods such as electronic/anonymous payments, money remittances, cash-carriers, virtual currencies, transfers of gold or precious metals and pre-paid cards in line with the risk they present and to curb more effectively the illicit trade in cultural goods”.
The ministers committed their countries to ensuring swift and effective freezing of terrorist assets throughout the Union, whether through autonomous EU decisions or in compliance with UN Security Council Resolutions.