Nicolas Schmit, the Minister responsible for relations with the European Parliament during the Luxembourg Presidency of the Council of the EU, addressed the plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 25 November 2015. He represented the Council at the debate on the Paris terrorist attacks of 13 November 2015, also attended by the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
In particular, the debate focused on current and future anti-terror measures, referring to the conclusions of the extraordinary JHA Council of 20 November 2015.
'We need deeper and more extensive European cooperation'
Nicolas Schmit pledged his support to the victims of terrorism before the MEPs, and called for deeper and more extensive European cooperation, 'to unite all those willing to join this relentless fight against those who indiscriminately kill and spread terror'.
He then drew attention to the 'ambitious measures' set out by the JHA Council of 20 November, stressing that, as far as the fight against terrorism is concerned, the Council will focus on operational measures.
With regard to the Passenger Name Record (PNR), the Council aims to make rapid progress on the implementation of this measure at a European level. 'The Presidency hopes to reach an agreement with the Parliament during the next trilogue', stated the Minister. 'And we are fully aware of the importance of finalising negotiations on the data protection package', he added, before setting out the commitment of the Presidency to finalise the negotiations before the end of the year.
The PNR is a database record that contains the identity of all airline passengers entering or leaving the European Union. In April 2012, the JHA Council agreed on a general approach on the draft directive which dates back to 2011, but it was blocked in the European Parliament for reasons relating to data protection. While the Council has regularly stressed the urgency of finalising this directive due to the growing threat of foreign fighters, the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) of the Parliament has at last adopted a revised report on the directive and a mandate to negotiate with the Council on 15 July 2015, making its agreement subject to parallel progress on the reform of data protection.
As for trafficking in firearms, the Minister stated that the Council intends to fight more effectively against illegal arms trafficking within the EU by drawing on revised texts and operations carried out in the framework of the 'EU Policy Cycle to tackle organised and serious international crime'. 'The Presidency will initiate discussions this week on the proposal for a revised Firearms Directive that the Commission has just presented', he stated.
With regard to strengthening external borders, Nicolas Schmit set out the commitment of Member States to initiate immediate implementation of systematic and coordinated controls necessary at external borders, including the control of persons enjoying the right to freedom of movement. The Minister observed that the modernisation of border management systems for Member States in the Schengen Area will be implemented between now and March 2016. Member States will carry out 'systematic registration', including taking digital fingerprints, of third county nationals entering the Schengen Area, as well as systematic security checks undertaken using 'the relevant databases'.
So far as concerns the most exposed external borders, Nicolas Schmit stated that Member States will strengthen controls, 'in particular by deploying, where necessary, Rapid Border Intervention Teams and police officers to ensure that screening and security controls are carried out in a systematic way'.
As regards information exchange, the Council is committed to implementing a series of measures designed to use existing tools 'to their maximum capacity' and to make cooperation 'as effective as possible'. 'Member States will therefore ensure that national authorities systematically enter data on all alleged foreign terrorist fighters into the SIS II database', stated the Minister.
Nicolas Schmit also mentioned the new Europol regulation 'in respect of which we hope to reach an agreement without delay'. He believes that the regulation should be consistent with the mandate and objectives of the European Counter Terrorist Centre under the auspices of Europol, which will be launched on 1 January 2016. The Minister explained that Member States will second counter-terrorism experts to the European Counter Terrorist Centre. He invited the Commission to put forward a legislative proposal to authorise Europol to carry out systematic cross-checks between Europol and SIS II databases.
In terms of combating the financing of terrorism, Nicolas Schmit stated that the Council requested that the Commission put forward proposals to strengthen, harmonise and enhance the competencies of Financial Intelligence Units (FIU) and the cooperation among them, as well as to ensure the rapid access of FIUs to necessary information in order to 'enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the fight against money laundering and the financing of terrorism'. The Council also calls for strengthened monitoring of non-bank means of payment.
Lastly, the Minister welcomed the Commission's intention to present a proposal of a new directive updating the Framework Decision on combating terrorism before the end of the year. The Council also advocates for improvements to be made to the European Criminal Records Information System ECRIS and to preventive measures.
'All these measures call for closer monitoring. The Council will make sure that this happens', concluded Nicolas Schmit.
'We must safeguard the spirit of Schengen'
'Never has there been a greater need for a strong and determined Europe, capable of acting with solidarity in a swift and coordinated way', declared Jean-Claude Juncker to MEPs, before stressing the need to avoid the 'danger of confusing' refugees with terrorists.
'We must safeguard the spirit of Schengen. [...] If the spirit of Schengen is banished from our territories and our hearts, we will lose more than just the Schengen Area. The single currency will be pointless in the absence of Schengen', he added.
Referring to responses of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker is convinced of the need to create a European Passenger Name Record, 'including for flights within Europe', adding that 'the Commission will put forward a proposal in December with regard to border controls and coastguards'.
'We tend to focus on cooperation with Turkey but we must not forget other countries', reiterated Jean-Claude Juncker, referring to the EUR 1.8 billion Trust Fund for Africa. He also called for enhanced cooperation between European secret services.
The MEPs' debate
During the debate which followed, the main political groups all stressed the importance of demonstrating unity, solidarity, and also tolerance, in order to avoid confusion between terrorism, Islam and refugees, as refugees are the first victims of terrorism.
The European PNR was a key focus of the MEPs' debate. Chairman of the European People's Party (Christian Democrats) (EPP), Manfred Weber, stated that 'we must act calmly but with determination' in order to make progress on Europol, the Data Protection Directive and stamping out funding for terrorism, among other things. But above all, we must make progress on data storage and the PNR, he said.
Gianni Pittella, Chair of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), expressed the commitment of his party to adopting the PNR 'as soon as possible' without 'compromising individual freedoms and the protection of personal data'. He also called for enhanced cooperation between European intelligence services and the need to invest in those services both economically and politically.
Chair of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR), Syed Kamall, also called for better exchange of information between European services, before adding that the creation of a European Intelligence Service is not necessary. 'We must come together to learn lessons from these events, to develop our response, which should be measured and proportionate', he said.
Chair of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE), Guy Verhofstadt, expressed 'outrage' and dismissed claims that the European Parliament is responsible for the fact that a European PNR System is yet to be implemented. Although a draft directive is under discussion 'which will take at least two years to be applied' and which 'will create 28 PNRs in the EU', the Parliament has submitted a proposal for a regulation which would be directly applicable, thereby creating a single system.
According to Guy Verhofstadt, such a system would eradicate 'systematic failings' observed in recent years with regard to the attacks in Madrid, London and Paris where the authors of such attacks were known to the intelligence services of a Member State, but information failed to be transmitted to the intelligence services of other countries. Guy Verhofstadt also called for the creation of a European intelligence agency.
His suggestion was supported by Co-Chair of the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA), Philippe Lamberts, who stated that, 'in terms of security, there is only shared sovereignty'. The MEP believes that political responsibility necessitates actions based on facts, the first being that terrorists were known, but not by all. Generalised surveillance is therefore not suitable; although there is 'no shortage' of information, the problem lies in exchange of information, using that information and allocating funds to that effect.
The impact of military intervention on radicalisation and terrorism was also raised by several speakers, including Philippe Lamberts and the Chair of the Confederal Group of the European United Left - Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL), Gabriele Zimmer. In particular, Gabriele Zimmer noted that 'military intervention has not weakened terrorism' but, on the contrary, it has fuelled recruitment rates.
Likewise, the two MEPs discussed the fact that the terrorists in question 'grew up here'. 'Why have our societies become a breeding ground for hatred', asked Phillipe Lamberts, who pointed to a society 'where competition that pits everyone against each other is rife'. In this regard, Gabriele Zimmer stressed the need to respond to the situation in many urban areas in Europe. 'We must lead an offensive in terms of integration in order to give young people a future'.
Freedom of movement within the Schengen Area was called into question by Eurosceptic groups such as the EFDD and the ENF, blaming the attacks on the freedom of movement.