Parliaments

MEPs to address new focus on security

A passenger heads to security at Barcelona's El Prat airport Image copyright Reuters

The European Parliament is now on its summer recess and will return in September.

One of the tasks awaiting MEPs when they get back is to set up a new committee to review EU counter-terrorism policies.

The temporary body, which has been given a one-year mandate, will be charged with identifying potential flaws in current schemes.

It comes as security issues have climbed up the EU's agenda in recent years following recent terror attacks.

What will the committee be investigating?

The mandate given to the committee says the "core" of its work will focus on how effectively information is being shared between national and EU agencies.

This will include looking at how much information member states are putting into existing EU databases such as the Schengen Information System and Visa Information System.

Not only that, but the committee intends to look into "possible deficiencies" in the transfer of information between the EU agencies themselves.

The other main focus will be on the management of the external borders of the passport-free Schengen zone, and "malfunctions" allowing people to enter with fake documents.

But the brief also goes even wider - covering de-radicalistion programmes, co-operation with non-EU countries and the thorny issue of privacy.

Border security in focus

Image copyright Reuters

The committee will start work at a time when various measures to strengthen the external borders of the passport-free Schengen area are coming into force.

A rule change requiring systematic passport checks at Schengen borders has been blamed by some for long queues at European airports this summer.

Under the new law, all travellers have to be checked against the Schengen Information System and Interpol's stolen and lost travel documents database.

The regulation was proposed in late 2015 in the wake of terror attacks in Paris - but became law earlier this year, with a transition period for roll-out looming in October.

The issue could come back into focus after the recess, when MEPs will be called on to give final approval to new a new Schengen border system for all non-EU nationals.

The new scheme - meant to be in place for 2020 - will replace manual stamping of passports with automated database recording of traveller information, including fingerprints and photos.

It has been billed as a way to speed up checks at the border, but the requirement for data to be automatically stored for at least three years has attracted controversy.

What powers will the committee have?

European Parliament committees do not have formal powers to summon witnesses, or sanction organisations that refuse to submit requested documents.

Previous committees have complained that their lack of powers in this area has hindered their ability to gather evidence.

In a possible effort to maximise participation, the committee says it will allow witnesses to give evidence in private if they are discussing sensitive or classified information.

Intriguingly, the mandate also specifies that meetings will be held in rooms "equipped in such a way as to make it impossible for any non-authorised persons to listen to the proceedings".

A total of 30 MEPs will sit on the committee - significantly fewer than the 65 who sit on the committee investigating the Panama Papers leaks, or the 45 who sat on the extended inquiry into tax practices set up after the Luxleaks scandal.

What are the wider issues?

Security is not an area where the EU has traditionally had much power, unlike areas such as competition policy or fisheries.

However, the number of EU-wide security policies has increased in recent years as the issue has been pushed up the political agenda by successive terror attacks.

The European Commission now has a dedicated commissioner responsible for co-ordinating security policy - the UK's Sir Julian King.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Sir Julian King used to be the UK's ambassador to France

But the drive to improve security through collecting and retaining large amounts of data has not met with universal approval.

The European Parliament has generally been supportive of attempts to "Europeanise" security issues but has also shown opposition to measures deemed too invasive to privacy.

Although eventually approving it in April last year, MEPs blocked a passenger data sharing scheme for years on rights grounds and demanded additional safeguards.

They also refused to ratify a similar scheme between the EU and Canada before the ECJ, the EU's top court, issued an opinion.

In late July, the court said elements of the current scheme, which allows authorities to retain personal data for up to five years, ran contrary to fundamental rights and data protection rules.

The EU Commission has pledged to revise the scheme and the issue is sure to return to the fore after the summer break.