The Luxembourg Minister in charge of relations with the European Parliament throughout the Luxembourg Presidency of the Council, Nicolas Schmit, spoke on 28 October 2015 on behalf of the Council to the plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg to discuss the "Smart Borders" package . He was responding to an oral question from the British MEP Claude Moraes (S&D).
As a reminder, the legislative proposal that the European Commission presented in February 2013 aims to improve external border management and to contribute to the fight against irregular migration. The package includes 3 legislative acts: a regulation establishing an entry/exit system (EES), a regulation establishing a Registered Traveller Programme (RTP) as well as a regulation amending the Schengen Borders Code to incorporate the functioning of these 2 systems.
The EES aims principally to establish a reliable and fast system to calculate the length of stay authorised for each traveller. At present, the time spent by each person in EU territory must be calculated manually using a stamp, which slows border crossings. It would also allow for easier identification of each person who exceeds their right to stay ("overstayers").
Due to the opposition of the Justice and Civil Liberties (LIBE) Committee of the European Parliament and the reluctance of certain Member States, the European Commission conducted a technical study, published in October 2014, as well as a pilot scheme. It is committed to reviewing the package and will submit a new single proposal at the start of 2016, after an impact study has been carried out.
In his question, Claude Moraes asked the Council if the RTP was the "appropriate response" to the current situation, namely the constant increase in border crossings against the background of the refugee crisis. He also questioned access to the system for law enforcement, the aspects linked to data protection as well as the costs of the project.
A system which will make it easier to identify people at the border and within the country
In his response, Nicolas Schmit stated that the creation of a European entry/exit system is "a necessary step to preserve the Schengen area", given the urgency of the current situation. He pointed out that the last European Council of 15 October 2015 in its conclusions had called for "an emphasis on technical solutions to strengthen checks at EU external borders, with the aim of meeting these objectives as well as in the area of migration and security, without hampering the fluidity of movement".
For the Minister, a European entry/exit system (EES) would lead to a "harmonisation and standardisation of border checks and bring about a higher level of security". According to him, this system will provide more certainty with regard to calculating the period of authorised stay. Border guards would have "more time to identify those passengers who pose a migratory or security risk", whilst today they waste time "watching the stamping of travel documents and calculating the authorised period of stay". Furthermore, if stamping were eliminated this would enable greater use of ABC gates ("Automatic Border Control") to include a section of travellers for whom border crossing would be smoother, Nicolas Schmit emphasised.
A European entry/exit system will make it easier to identify people at the border and within the country, continued the Minister, highlighting that this could not have been achieved by a simple upgrade of the Schengen Information System (SIS) II, nor by an overhaul of the Visa Information System (VIS), as had been indicated by the European Commission in the technical study. According to the Minister, a majority of the Council at this stage prefers a progressive approach to integrating the EES and RTP programmes into the Visa Information System (VIS). The interoperability between future European systems and existing national systems will help to reduce the final cost of the project, stated the Minister. The Council shares the concerns of the Parliament of not exceeding the budget strictly necessary for the efficient functioning of the system, he added.
Nicolas Schmit also explained that currently only 12 countries use such national entry/exit systems, but "their added value is limited". "If no system is established at Union level, the Member States will continue to act on their own, without efficiency and a harmonised approach that the smart borders package can provide", he warned.
The Minister then stressed that such a system could act as a "deterrent" for those coming from third countries who try to exceed their authorised right to stay ("overstayers"), which would enable Member States to gain "a precise view" of the number and nationalities of these people. "Pertinent" information, according to him, concerning negotiations on visa facilitation agreements.
A majority of Member States are in favour of a uniform five-year retention period
As for the Registered Traveller Programme (RTP), Nicolas Schmit stated that the Council had always been in favour of a programme of this type and that a majority of Member States were in favour of a European RTP with "some flexibility regarding the means of application according to the type of border".
According to the Minister, a very large majority of Member States are in favour of access for law enforcement to EES with the aim of preventing or detecting terrorist activities or other serious criminal offences. This access should always be subject to strict conditions and procedures, complying with case law of the Court of Justice, insisted Nicolas Schmit.
Regarding the question of data retention periods, Nicolas Schmit explained that a large majority of Member States were in favour of a uniform five-year retention period, with the aim of harmonising all the systems. However, the Council is "fully aware" of the importance of the judgement of the Court of Justice of the EU of 8 April 2014, which nullified the Directive on data retention, the Minister made clear. He added that all the debates within the Council "fully took into account the principle of doing only what is necessary and proportional to achieve the desired aims".
For the Commission, a unique system is "preferable"
Dimitris Avramopoulos, European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, has undertaken to present a single legislative proposal at the start of next year in order to establish a system which "functions well and quickly". Based on the "preliminary conclusions" of the impact study, the Commissioner judged it a "unique" system which incorporated the functions of the EES and RTP, and that it is "preferable" to having two quite different systems, particularly in terms of reducing costs and avoiding the registration of personal data in two systems.
The proposal will have a good cost-efficiency ratio and will respect data protection legislation, he added. It will be supplemented by a "slight modification to the Schengen Borders Code". One of the aims is to reduce the amount of work and "repetitive tasks" carried out by border guards, with the aim of freeing up resources, the Commissioner underlined. He highlighted the importance of better and smarter management of borders. "The flow of travellers is going to increase. If we do not act, there will be queues at borders and more border guards will have to be employed. This is neither acceptable, nor feasible", he stated.
During the debate, many MEPs reminded those present that the aim of the legislative package was to keep a check on "overstayers" and improve border management in order to adapt to the 21st century and harmonise and exchange information between Member States. They insisted that the debate was not linked to the migratory crisis; it was rather about knowing whether the costs of such a system are justified in relation to added value. Other MEPs thought the debate was inappropriate, given the current crisis, and called for firmer borders to prevent irregular migrants from entering.
Nicolas Schmit concluded by stating that wrong conclusions should not be drawn, and that the current situation was "exceptional". He stressed the importance of the Schengen free movement system, pointing out that a more efficient system was required to fight terrorism and crime.