by Jeremy Hawkins
STRASBOURG, France, Oct. 25 (Xinhua) -- New measures to strengthen security at the European Union (EU)'s external borders and speed-up entry and exit checks have been given the green light Wednesday by the European Parliament during its plenary session in Strasbourg.
Members of European Parliament (MEPs) backed a draft law that proposes a common electronic system with an aim to speed up checks on the external borders of the Schengen area free-travel zone, and to register all non-EU travelers.
The decision comes after the EU has struggled with an ongoing migration crisis starting 2015, increased concern about terrorist activity following attacks on major European city centers, such as Paris, Brussels and London, and greater division within the bloc on questions of internal and external security that have inflamed the European extreme-right.
Voting in favor with 477 votes to 139 against, with 50 abstentions, Europe's parliamentary assembly supported the Entry/Exit System (EES), which will register information on non-EU citizens, such as name, travel document, fingerprints, facial image, date and place when they enter, exit or are refused entry into the Schengen area. Both travelers who require visas or who are visa-exempt for short stays of 90 days will be affected by the system.
Rapporteur AgustinDiaz de Mera (European People's Party, Spain) said Wednesday, "The Entry/Exit System will allow for quicker and safer border crossings. It will also help to detect terrorists and other criminals hiding behind a false identity."
Vice-President of the Socialists and Democrats group and negotiator for the system Tanja Fajon (Slovenia), said Wednesday in a statement, "This new system is part of a range of measures to help achieve more modernized border control. This can facilitate travel while at the same time also increase security, essential if we want the Schengen area to function effectively."
The EES will make border checks more efficient by removing the need for passport stamps, but through data sharing will make it easier to detect travelers who overstay, as well as document or identity fraud.
Questions about data rights have been raised about the system, however, with some critics worrying it will be converted into a surveillance tool.
"This new system entrusts the management of borders to digital filing systems that collect more and more data as well as fingerprints and facial images," said Marie-Christine Vergiat (France, European United Left group) in a statement Wednesday, worrying that "this is now primarily a system for identifying people in irregular immigration situations and facilitating deportations."
Data collected by the system will be stored for three years in normal cases and for five years for those who overstay, and will be able to be consulted to prevent, detect or investigate terrorist offences or other serious criminal activity.
It will be shared across a network available to border and visa authorities, as well as Europol, the European police bureau. The data will not be available, however, to national asylum authorities.
In a separate vote on Wednesday, MEPs approved amendments needed to add the new system to the Schengen Border Code, with 496 votes in favor to 137 against, with 32 abstentions. Romania and Bulgaria, however, currently outside the Schengen area, will still apply the system, which will be operated by nations who implement Schengen rules fully, as well as those who have completed the Schengen evaluation and have been granted passive access to the Visa Information System (VIS).
The EES proposal is part of the smart borders package presented by the European Commission in April 2016, and the new system has been estimated to cost 480 million euros (566 million U.S. dollars). Already agreed upon informally by EU member states, the Entry/Exit System is expected to be operational in 2020.