EU to upgrade counterterrorism border control system

Attacks expose flaws in how police share information on Schengen zone database

  Grand-Place in Brussels: The European Commission has said steps are  needed to strengthen the border control database known as the Schengen Information System. Photograph:  Hatim Kaghat/AFP/Getty Images

Grand-Place in Brussels: The European Commission has said steps are needed to strengthen the border control database known as the Schengen Information System. Photograph: Hatim Kaghat/AFP/Getty Images

 

Brussels is proposing to bolster the sharing of border control data to address weaknesses exposed by terror attacks across Europe during the past two years.

The European Commission said steps were needed to strengthen the border control database known as the Schengen Information System and improve co-operation in tracking terror suspects.

The moves are part of a broader plan to strengthen counterterrorism legislation in the wake of attacks in France, Belgium and Germany that have killed more than 250 people in 12 months.

The database enables border guards and police to share information across the EU. It was set up to facilitate frontier checks and searches for criminals moving around the passport-free Schengen zone. While the system is seen as a technical success, the attacks have revealed flaws in how it is used.

Salah Abdeslam, the main surviving attacker from the Islamic State cell that struck Paris in November 2015, was stopped by police at the Franco-Belgian border in the hours following the attacks, but was allowed to continue his journey. This precipitated a six-month manhunt. A French investigation later found that Belgian authorities had not added intelligence they had about Abdeslam’s radicalisation to the database.

Lapses in information-sharing also allowed Ibrahim El Bakraoui, one of the suicide bombers who attacked Brussels in March, to disappear after being expelled from Turkey to the Netherlands eight months earlier. Other concerns have arisen regarding how attackers concealed themselves among the more than a million migrants who entered the EU last year.

Critical information

EU home affairs commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said: “In the future, no critical information should ever be lost on potential terrorist suspects or irregular migrants crossing our external borders.”

The changes proposed include putting more information about suspects into the database and facilitating cross-border inquiries by national police forces. Europol, the EU police agency, would be given “full access rights” to the database.

Other parts of the upgrade include making greater use of facial imaging and palm prints to identify people entering the Schengen area.

Britain’s EU commissioner Julian King, who has the institution’s security portfolio, said the changes were just the first step and that “much more work remains to be done” to improve the operation of the database.

The system, he said, was “only as good as the data inputted into it”, he said. “We’ll bring forward further improvements in 2017”.

The commission presented the plans alongside a tightening of EU laws to combat money laundering and terrorist financing. Those plans would widen the checks carried out by border guards on cash being brought in and out of the EU. Authorities suspect money is being moved in postal parcels and shipping containers.

Other changes seek to remove red tape that hampers cross-border asset freezes.

– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016)