Europe Closes Information Gaps in the Schengen Visa Zone

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Europe Closes Information Gaps in the Schengen Visa Zone

Introduction

In February this year (2019), the European Parliament and Council agreed to go ahead with a proposal to close gaps between different computer systems. It aims to ensure that the digital frontier controls work in a more effective and targeted way throughout the European visa zone. Designed to make the most of intelligence and join up separate data, the enhancements are a political priority. In this post, we look at what these developments mean for travellers from outside the EU when they arrive at air and sea ports of Schengen zone countries.

Linking Information Together

IT staff are currently striving to make sure that immigration officials and frontier guards can see timely and accurate details of travellers arriving at external borders of the Schengen visa bloc of countries. Significantly, the new measures will strengthen security and protect Europe, especially in the light of unrestricted travel (with some exceptions) inside the area. 

First Vice-President Frans Timmermans welcomed the agreement in a press statement. He outlined how the initiative will protect citizens and catch criminals, as law enforcement officers and border guards share data within the European visa area. 

Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU Commissioner for Migration, Citizenship and Home Affairs, billed the changes as essential for security. He referred to how the measures would empower officials and boost their collective ability to gather and share vital data. Similarly, the security commissioner, Julian King, observed how information that already exists would soon be available at the front line, while still observing basic rights. 

Together, the new EES (Entry and Exit system), ETIAS (European Travel Information and Authorisation System) and the new ECRIS-TCN (the European criminal records system) will display on unified monitor screens. Usefully, essential data will be navigable with single clicks, instead of having to access multiple databases.

Detecting False Passports

Because border security officials will benefit from seeing a complete picture, it will be easier to uncover ID theft and fraud. Detection will be quicker too, thanks to the integration of systems and shared biometric data such as facial images and fingerprints. Experts are currently setting up a common data repository for biographical data of non-EU citizens. Additionally, new software mechanisms will sniff out fraudulent and multiple identity applications and flag them up for further action.

When security officials match information contained in the quick-access system, it will be possible to request enhanced access in accordance with rules that observe individual rights and data protection principles. Bona fide subjects will receive information about data protection rights, along with appropriate points of contact in national authorities.

Identifying Short-Stay Travellers

First discussed in European parliamentary circles in April 2016, President Juncker later highlighted shortcomings in EU security and immigration computer systems during his State of the Union address in autumn 2016. Specifically, a fragmented approach was making it difficult to access or collate relevant information in time. Consequently, nefarious individuals were able to slip through security nets on occasions.

Consequently, a high-level group of experts focussed on information system interoperability. In 2017, it presented a further report and recommendations that went on to form proposals, plans and the basis for the current agreement. Subsequently, the Commission formally adopted plans for the Entry/Exit System (EES) in November 2017.

According to plans published on the EU website, the EES should come into operation by 2020 and, in tandem with ETIAS, will log all non-EU short-stay traveller details including: 

  • Identification document (passport) number.
  • Other travel document and authorisation codes.
  • Date and place of entry.
  • Date and place of exit.

With the introduction of the EES, manual passport stamping will cease. Border crossing should become easier for bona fide travellers, whereas over-stayers will become ever more conspicuous.

Protecting EU Citizens

Under the hashtag #securityeu, the EU emphasises the importance of swift information sharing and reliable IT systems to support law enforcement, protect citizens and save lives. Now, authorities and border guards should be able to work directly and without delay using all the information available from anywhere in the EU.

The increased security measures do not apply to EU citizens, but to those whom the EU terms as third country (i.e. non-EU) nationals. In practice, legitimate travellers with genuine documents and the necessary European visa are unlikely to notice any adverse effects. If the new sharing works with ETIAS as intended, the result could be quite the opposite; weary passengers arriving from non-EU countries might encounter shorter queues, thanks to increased efficiency. Usefully, too, the enhanced security mechanisms will bolster protection for vulnerable travellers such as unaccompanied minors.

Apart from twenty-one EU member states, four Schengen-associated countries are participating: Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. Notably, Denmark is still to decide. The measures are awaiting formal adoption by the European Parliament and Council.