Fortress Europe seeks "Big Brother" defenses
Officials in Brussels want to further fortify the EU's external borders through the use of modern technology
Brussels -- The European Union is sometimes referred to as "Fortress Europe" because of its efforts to keep foreign undesirables out.
Now, officials in Brussels want to further fortify the EU's external borders through the use of modern technology that civil liberties advocates fear could violate the privacy of millions of visitors and lead to abuses.
On Wednesday Franco Frattini, the EU's top justice official, said the 27-member bloc needed to use "the most advanced technology to reach the highest level of security."
The Justice, Freedom and Security commissioner proceeded to present a series of measures designed to track down illegal immigrants and prevent foreign terrorists from entering EU territory.
The proposals, which will have to be discussed and approved by the European Parliament and by national governments, include fingerprinting third-country nationals when they cross an EU border.
Though estimates vary widely, it is thought that there are some 8 million illegal immigrants living in the EU.
Most of them entered the EU on a valid 3-month visa but then failed to leave when it expired.
The authorities are currently facing an uphill battle against illegal immigrants.
According to EU figures, 500,000 of them were apprehended in 2006. And of these, only 40 percent were removed from EU territory.
One major problem facing the police at the moment is that a foreigner can simply tear up his or her visa and lie about his identity.
To overcome this problem, Frattini wants foreigners to supply their fingerprints whenever they enter or exit the EU.
The fingerprints would be stored in a central database and shared out among the authorities of member states, allowing police to easily verify the true identity and status of third country nationals during random checks.
The entry/exit system would also register foreign nationals who currently do not require a visa, such as Canadians and US citizens.
Graham Watson, head of the European Parliament's Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, says fingerprinting, as well as EU plans to use satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor borders, risks seeing a "Big Brother mentality" take over in Europe.
"Amassing information on travelers is a must for efficient border controls. However, we need tight checks on who can access this data to guarantee it will not be used for other purposes," Watson said.
Watson also referred to the recent loss by authorities in Britain of sensitive information concerning millions of taxpayers to underscore how easily it was to misuse the collection of such data.
Frattini noted Wednesday that European nationals were already being asked to give their fingerprints when applying for new generation passports and vowed to introduce criminal sanctions for those found guilty of violating data protection rules.
Another criticism leveled at Frattini's fingerprinting proposal is that it will create long queues at the EU's 665 airports and 871 seaports.
To address this concern, the commissioner offered creating a fast- track procedure for third-country frequent travelers such as businesspeople or students. These would be allowed to go through dedicated automated lanes, but only if they satisfy a pre-screening test.
This in turn raises questions about what kind of vetting criteria should be used to decide whether a traveler is bona fide or not.
Officials in Brussels say they want to use similar criteria to those already used when foreigners ask for a visa.
This includes having a reliable travel history (for instance, no previous overstays) and being able to prove that one has "sufficient means of subsistence."
Whether the EU would soon be asking North American visitors to show their tax receipts remains unclear.
According to critics, the proposals presented by Frattini cause more problems than they provide remedies. This, they argue, is because he has been too keen to target illegal aliens rather than promote a common immigration policy.
Moreover, they note that the new rules would make it virtually impossible for asylum seekers to enjoy a better future in the EU.
"If there is a house with no doors, you shouldn't be surprised when people come through the window," said Cem Ozdemir, a German Green Party MEP of Turkish origin.
DPA with Expatica