Ashley Fox is an MEP for South West England, and is the leader of Britain’s Conservative MEPs.
Inevitably this week in Strasbourg has been dominated by the publication by Donald Tusk of the draft text on David Cameron’s renegotiation. If you have not seen the full document you can read it here. This is the starting point for negotiations at the EU Council meeting on 18th and 19th February.
I do not propose to discuss that here, especially as important details may change in the next two weeks. Rather, I want to tell you about another important piece of business currently being discussed in Strasbourg and Brussels that might otherwise pass unnoticed.
We fought the last General Election on a manifesto promising to secure the economic and national security of our country. Cooperating with our allies in the fight against terrorism is a crucial part of that.
I was told this week of a woman who flew into London from the Caribbean. She was stopped at customs and found to be carrying packages containing six kilogrammes of cocaine. Her Passenger Name Record (PNR) included a telephone number which was used by another EU national two weeks later flying on the same route. When intercepted, this second person was found with seven kilogrammes of cocaine, setting in motion a chain of events that ultimately led to police breaking up a significant drug smuggling ring.
In another real life case, a man with no known links to terrorism left the UK. His complex travel route, involving multiple connections, was revealed through his PNR record and this alerted the police. He was intercepted and persuaded to abandon plans to join foreign fighters in Syria. Without PNR, the separate stages of his journey would not have been flagged up in time for the authorities to track his journey and talk him out of joining a terrorist group.
These are just two examples of the successful use of the PNR system which the European Parliament is shortly expected to agree to introduce on all flights arriving and leaving the European Union.
My colleague Timothy Kirkhope has piloted this legislation through the Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, reconciling those MEPs who were concerned about the implications for civil liberties and others who wanted information on individuals to remain openly available to investigators for longer.
Britain has kept PNR data for almost a decade, detailing such information as passengers’ addresses, contact details and travel patterns. It enables specially trained police officers to detect patterns of suspicious behaviour and avoids the discriminatory and inefficient profiling of individuals simply by their race, religion or country of origin.
Many other countries operate different versions of PNR but the systems vary in their approach and in the type of material collected, and information is not routinely shared between EU member states.
A succession of terrible terrorist attacks has illustrated in the starkest and most tragic terms why an effective EU-wide PNR system is now so crucial.
Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29-year-old French national, was a known ISIS sympathiser but hid trips to Syria by breaking his journey in several European and Asian countries. If EU PNR information had been available and widely shared, his travel plans may well have provided the security services with sufficient evidence to detain him well before he shot and killed four people at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels on May 24, 2014.
Hopefully the changes expected to be adopted by the EU in the coming months will prevent such vital clues being missed in future and provide the police and our security services with another important weapon in the fight against terrorism and international crime.