EU justice ministers travel to Latvia on Thursday for a key meeting on counter-terrorism as the EU remained stuck in deadlock over a proposed new law on the retention of passenger data records.
The Guardian reported on Wednesday that the European Commission is proposing a revised directive on data protection which would introduce more stringent data submission requirements from passengers travelling by air.
The European Commission originally published a proposal on passenger name records in February 2011 but the proposal became stalled in the EU legislative process amid strong resistance from the European Parliament over data privacy concerns.
A European Commission spokeswoman said on Wednesday that no proposal would be published today and the Commission is still “carefully assessing all options.”
The issue of disclosure of air passenger data has received fresh impetus in the wake of this month’s terrorist attacks in Paris, with the EU Council, representing member states, and the European Commission, urging the Parliament to back the bill.
Last week, Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan called on Ireland's 11 MEPs to take an active role in expediting the passage of the directive through the European Parliament.
Ireland's four Fine Gael MEPs are in favour of the directive, while Sinn Féin's three MEPs are against the current proposal. A Sinn Féin spokeswoman said last week that the party has previously opposed the collection of Passenger Name Records, as the party believes that the rights of passengers to privacy must be respected and upheld.
“Sinn Féin will not support any measures which infringe on the fundamental rights of citizens to privacy, data protection and free movement without just cause,” the spokeswoman said.
Speaking in the European Parliament earlier this month, Fine Gael MEP Deirdre Clune said she supported a European PNR agreement. "I believe it is important in helping the fight against terrorism and that citizens are happy to know that this information is shared as it will make Europe a safer place."
MEP for Dublin Nessa Childers said that the EU needed to be careful to safeguard the protection of citizens’ fundamental rights. “Legislating in haste in the wake of traumatic attacks can lead to kneejerk measures that impinge on citizens’ rights without a tangible benefit to their security, as we often saw over the past decade,” she said.
Independent MEP Marian Harkin said that the European Commission should submit a new proposal on the PNR directive to the European Parliament, but the Council should also adopt the data protection directive.
When contacted by The Irish Times, Independent MEP Luke 'Ming' Flanagan declined to comment on the issue. He said he does not deal with "tabloids or comics".
According to the Guardian, the revised legislation would involve 42 information requests from passengers. A European Commission spokeswoman told The Irish Times: "We are carefully assessing all options for how the Commission can best help EU legislators to reach a quick and effective result on the EU PNR proposal."
At an event in Dublin today, Minister for European Affairs Dara Murphy said everyone had been touched by the very tragic events in Paris a couple of weeks ago.
"We all have to be aware that the greatest freedom of all is the freedom of security and safety for our people. So in all the works that our justice ministers and our security forces engage in, we should never forget the importance of security and safety. Ireland supports the requirement for urgent progression now on the issue of passenger name records.
“However, it’s important that a compromise is found between the fears of the European Parliament and the Commission. I think there is the space to come to compromise with respect to how much data is required for a robust passenger name recognition system, how long the data has to be required for, and is there the capacity to de-personalise the data, (and) how and where it can be shared.
“We have to acknowledge that if we are prepared to share passenger name records with the United States, Canada and Australia, we should surely find a way to share it within our own countries,” he said.
“It is often suggested that there is a conflict between privacy and security and I don’t believe there is. I think if you look at the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, the right to privacy is a very important right indeed.”
Mr Murphy said digital communications “can and should remain private” in the same way letters had always been.
He said he saw no reason why security agencies, with proper judicial oversight and cooperation, could not come up with a way of identifying cases involving serious crime or security which required intervention. The European arrest warrant system was also working quite well, he said.
“There is of course always going to be a conflict and different countries have different views on the right to privacy and the right to freedom of expression. That is the great challenge for us in Europe. Some countries have a greater sense (sic) on privacy and others on freedom of expression.”