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Immigration

EU 'Smart Borders' plan raises 'Big Brother' flags

The "Smart Borders" project aims to place 21st-century technology at EU border crossings. Critics think it's little more than an effort to collect data - one that makes "felons" out of all visitors to Europe.

"Open" and "enticing" is how the EU hopes to present itself to the world beyond its borders. It follows naturally, then, that when non-EU nationals arrive in Europe they should feel as comfortable as possible, says the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmström of Sweden.

At the unveiling of the "Smart Borders" project, Malmström extolled its usefulness - for border control agencies, visitors who travel to the EU often, EU member states or for the economy of the European Union.

A woman wearing glasses and a beige blazer holds a hand out while giving a speech from a blue lectern.
(Photo: EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET)

Cecilia Malmström believes "Smart Borders" will speed up border crossings and enhance security

"According to the European statistics office, Eurostat, non-EU citizens contributed 271 million euros ($354 million dollars) to the EU economy in 2011," Malmström said. Beyond revenues, the commissioner believes that the advent of smartphones and data storage technologies have rendered obselete the physical stamping of passports.

High costs

The "Smart Borders" project is made up of two components, both of which would be implemented in all EU countries by 2018 if the plan is approved by the EU Parliament. One is the "Registered Travellers Programme" (RTP), the other the "Entry/Exit System" (EES). To comply with the system, all airports, harbors and at least two thousand border control checkpoints will have to be newly outfitted. To do so will cost approximately 1.1 billion euros.

RTP is intended to ease the immigration burden on non-EU citizens who travel regularly to EU member states. Travelers can register for the program, and, if approved, will pay a fee for a chip that allows them to pass through an automatic counter upon entering or exiting a country, with no further checks or controls.

A police officer checks a man's passport.
(Photo: Marius Becker dpa/lhe)

Electronic kiosks could supplement border control agents, like here at Frankfurt airport

A privacy nightmare?

The EES, by comparison, will record the biometric data of visitors to the EU and will then reference it against visa regulations on lengths of stay. The check is intended to prohibit individuals from entering the EU legally and then remaining there longer than allowed. Data will be retained for periods of six months - except in the case of non-EU citizens who have overstayed their visa allowance in the past. For those individuals, data can be stored indefinitely.

The EEP proposal in particular has garnered strong opposition. The official justification given for implementing "Smart Borders," says Ska Keller, a European parliamentarian for the European Green Party, is that the EU hopes to prevent an excessive influx of refugees from countries involved in the Arab Spring - or from any other crisis area.

"In principle, there's a tendency to now view immigration in terms of national security - and to define all immigrants as a risk to that security, which is groundless," Keller told DW. She believes that the EU should not be permitted to place all non-EU citizens under suspicion.

Data collected from the EES will also be made available for use by national police forces in EU member states, to be used in investigations into criminal activity. It's a plan that outrages the green politician.

"We can't comprehend why visitors to the EU are to be fingerprinted, registered and placed under general suspicion - in the same category as felons - when at the same time it's illegal in Germany to store fingerprint data from Germans," she said. Keller is originally from the German state of Brandenburg.

An impractical system

A woman with short brown hair smiles at the camera
(Photo: delivered by Ska Keller)

Ska Keller's areas of expertise include migration and the EU's relationship with Turkey

Together with the Berlin-based, politically green Heinrich Böll Foundation, Keller conducted a study on the planned border control project. Her study came to the conclusion that the system is not practical in day-to-day immigration and that it will not be as useful for the European Union as the EU Commission might believe.

Just like a similar "in-and-out" immigration system already installed in the US, the EES will not provide specific information on the places of residency that non-EU citizens take up within EU borders. She also sees nothing inherently logical about a visitor being tracked any longer than the stay of his or her visa. The study also criticizes the fact that anyone who files a petition for political asylum or becomes sick during their stay in Europe will be treated by default as a criminal.

In light of current discussions on EU budgets and planned reductions in spending in nearly all areas of EU governance, it is possible that the "Smart Borders" project will not find enthusiastic supporters in Brussels.

Still, Commissioner of Home Affairs Malström is confident. She says that some of the funding necessary for the "Smart Borders" project has already been set aside and that it will be a great help to EU member states grappling with ever-growing number of visitors. By 2030 the EU predicts 700 million border crossings per year. Those countries will have extra revenues as a result of those visitors, Malström says - and will benefit from those monies without having to hire any new immigration personnel to manage the flow of visitors.

In the meantime, however, the EU Commission must now meet with the EU Parliament and convince parliamentarians that the border-control proposal will make Europe as "enticing" as they believe.

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