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Brussels attacks prompt renewed EU focus on airline passenger data

The controversial plans to collect passenger name records for airline travellers in the EU are under focus after the terrorist atrocities in Brussels

The terrorist attacks in Brussels have led to renewed arguments over plans to collect personal data of all airline passengers in the European Union (EU).

The passenger name record (PNR) deal was fraught with disputes inside the European Parliament, but on the 23 March 2016 the French prime minister Manuel Valls hit out at members of European Parliament (MEPs) for delaying the rules.

He told French radio station Europe 1 that, in light of the Brussels attacks, the PNR plans are urgent. He demanded that the European Parliament approve them in April this year.

However, Jan Philipp Albrecht, vice-chair of the Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, called for a more measured approach: “The tragic attacks in Brussels show that we urgently need stronger police and security co-operation. But reflexively demanding for measures of mass surveillance does not prevent such attacks, those measures even block the view on the true deficits of security co-operation.”

The European Commission first proposed the PNR directive in 2011 – although proposals were discussed as long ago as 2007. It has since been back and forth in the European Parliament. Although a political deal has been reached, it must still be formally rubber-stamped by MEPs.

European home affairs commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos also pushed the European Parliament to act sooner rather than later: “An agreement was reached on our proposal for an EU passenger name record at the end of 2015, but things need to be finalised soon. The European Parliament should vote at the earliest possible moment and member states must not delay implementation.”

PNR has been controversial from the start, with some MEPs suggesting it amounts to indiscriminate and mass surveillance that would not stand up to a European Court of Justice ruling against blanket data retention. As a compromise, it was agreed to only approve the PNR in tandem with new data protection rules – which may not be ready for another couple of months.

Read more about government surveillance

But even before the Brussels attacks, Liberal MEPs took offence at what they said was “cheap politics”, accusing right-wing politicians of playing “dirty games with terrorism”.

“If the European People’s Party (EPP) and the European Conservatives and Reformists really wanted to speed up the process, why didn’t they follow our proposal for a PNR based on a regulation with immediate effect, rather than a directive that takes two years to implement?” asked Guy Verhofstadt, head of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats.

Following the atrocities in Belgium on 22 March 2016, the EPP called for the collection and sharing of passenger data in cross-border train travel as well.

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