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EU parliament to decide on air passenger data

Can more data help prevent further terrorist attacks? The EU believes so and wants to gather and store air passenger data. Now, it's up to the European Parliament to consent. But that just may block the move.

November 13, 2015: Terrorist attacks in Paris kill 130 people. March 22, 2016: Terrorist attacks in Brussels kill 32 people.

There is one thing that needs to happen to prevent further attacks, say EU interior ministers meeting in the Belgian capital just two days after the bloody events there: The European Parliament needs to approve what is known as 'PNR."

'PNR' is shorthand for 'passenger name records,' and the EU legislation on it would oblige airlines to hand EU governments the data they gather about passengers. Who is traveling where and when, how did they pay for the ticket, where are they seated on the flight, what baggage are they carrying: all this data would be passed on to EU member states, for them to store for five years.

Legislation with long history

The idea to gather and store air passenger data as a tool to prevent serious crimes had been born long before either the Brussels or Paris attacks. It was five years ago that the European Commission first breached the issue. But the parliament's committee on civil liberties objected: This EU law would allow data to be gathered too indiscriminately, and it would achieve too little to justify infringing on data privacy on such a scale.

But by the spring of 2016, the political mood had changed.

"We consider it very important that the European Parliament finally gives the go-ahead for the directive on passenger name records," said Germany's interior minister Thomas de Maizière

after meeting with his European counterparts on March 24.

All EU governments as well as the European Commission, it seemed, were pointing to parliamentarians, implying it was in their hands to prevent further terrorist attacks on European soil.

And so, parliament decided to put a compromise proposal on the passenger data up for a vote this Thursday.

'Aye' vs. 'naye'

Politicians from the ranks of Christian Democratic parties, who have a majority in the parliament, are convinced that any European politician interested in the safety and well-being of its citizens must vote 'yes.'

MEP Manfred Weber

Heads the biggest group in the EU Parliament, and is very much in favor of 'PNR': Manfred Weber

"The European Parliament must show its commitment to the fight against terrorism by adopting the PNR legislation," said the group's chairman, Manfred Weber. But others disagree.

"There has been no lack of data concerning the perpetrators of the Brussels attacks, they were known to authorities," says Rebecca Harms, who leads the group of Green parliamentarians.

"All this data gathering doesn't get us anywhere if member states don't start sharing data at the same time."

Birgit Sippel of the left parties' group in the parliament shares that view. She would have preferred that the proposed legislation obliged member states to share the information gathered.

Running into headwinds

But the current proposal leaves a big margin of discretion to member states - too big for Sophie in 't Veld of the group of liberal parties.

Which is why Ms. In 't Veld proposed an amendment to the legislation. She suggested changing the current proposal so that member states would have to "automatically exchange" air passenger data, and require them to pass on information on potentially dangerous travelers "proactively" and "without delay."

A sensitive issue, not only because formally, EU treaties state that national security remains the responsibility of each member state; realities on the ground have shown that security authorities in any given EU member state are reluctant to share information with authorities in any other given state.

"Information sharing still does not reflect the threat," the EU's Counter-Terrorism Coordinator said bluntly in a report a few weeks ago.

Proposed amendment hits vulnerable spot

Because the issue of information sharing is such a sensitive one, the carefully-wrought compromise between EU institutions now put before parliament might unravel if amended to mandate an automatic exchange of data.

"Everyone involved in the process has been aware that any amendments to the legislation on the table will send us back to square one and that it would take months to come to a new agreement with member states assembled in the Council," says Axel Voss of the Christian Democrats.

That would be a bitter pill for Timothy Kirkhope of the group of center-right to right-wing parties in the European Parliament - who spent months thrashing out the agreement up for a vote - to swallow.

Kirkhope fears that Sophie in't Veld and her group called 'ALDE' might get support, in particular by the second biggest group in the parliament, that of the left parties.

Good news or bad news?

Critics say that if the EU parliament was to reject air passenger legislation, that wouldn't be so terrible. They argue it is a hastily-wrought compromise that leaves many uncertainties, including regarding data privacy.

If it entered into law, they say the air passenger directive just might face the same fate as

legislation on data retention two years ago,

and be outright rejected by the European Court of Justice.

Christian Democrats say they are happy to risk rejection by the courts, but want to do something they think will help prevent further terrorist attacks in the meantime.

But Sergio Carrera of the Brussels-based think tank Center for European Policy Studies believes it is unlikely the EU's air passenger legislation would go very far towards achieving that goal.

"This is a purely political measure, designed to send out the message - we are doing something," he said.

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