BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union will step up checks on its citizens travelling abroad, tighten gun control and collect more data on airline passengers, ministers agreed on Friday in response to the Paris attacks a week ago.
Interior and justice ministers, who met in Brussels at the request of France following the Islamic State attacks that killed 130 people, also agreed to share more intelligence, especially on suspects like the Belgians and Frenchmen believed to have come back from Syria to strike at Parisians last Friday.
And they will put in place new controls on bitcoin, cash and other ways of moving money around Europe outside monitored banking systems.
“We need to act firmly, we need to act swiftly and with force,” French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told a news conference as he hailed the level of support France had secured.
With indications that some of the Paris attackers, who were on counter-terrorism watchlists, reached Europe among crowds of refugees or on fake passports, all travellers, including EU citizens, going to or from the 26-nation open-borders Schengen zone will systematically be checked against police databases.
At present, most EU citizens are merely subject to a visual check of their documents. Pressed by France, ministers also agreed to revise the Schengen border code in due course to make such systematic checks of EU citizens compulsory and also introduce biometric data checks for those crossing the borders.
The arrival of some million migrants, including many Syrian refugees, this year and their subsequent mass movements across Europe’s borders has shaken the Schengen system. Security fears after the Paris attacks have also seen states reintroduce checks at once-untended frontiers. The ministers repeated a will to implement measures agreed this year to check better who enters.
“Everyone agreed that while it was France that was attacked, it was the whole of Europe that was the target,” the Luxembourg minister who chaired the meeting told a news conference.
“A national approach is not enough. We need more Europe,” added Etienne Schneider. But echoing concerns at the table that national security remain the domain of member states he stressed that new EU legislation would be limited: “The instruments are there for the most part, so it’s now a question of using them.”
A proposal by the European commissioner for internal affairs for a European Intelligence Agency found little support from national governments and Dimitris Avramopoulos himself played it down as an “ideal idea” that was “not on the table right now”.
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said: “We are here to show our French colleagues, and the French people, that we stand by them.” That solidarity would partly be in the form of more sharing of information on potential security threats.
That would focus on exchanging intelligence on fighters in Syria — currently, officials say, fewer than half the 5,000 or so Europeans fighting for Islamist rebels are documented in the database held by EU police coordination agency Europol.
France has accused Belgium of being lax in its surveillance of radicals and more generally there has been concern that known criminals and suspects have been able to enter the EU in one country, where data is not held, and then travel around easily.
The suspected planner of the Paris attacks, 28-year-old Belgian Abdelhamid Abaaoud, killed in a police raid on a safe house on Wednesday, boasted on Islamic State websites of travelling to Europe from Syria despite his face being on wanted posters.
About half of the data comes from just five of the 28 member states, officials said — without revealing those failing to help: “Some of them are. Not all of them are,” Europol Director Rob Wainwright told Reuters. “Frankly, they need to do more.”
A new counter-terrorism centre at Europol, starting in January, would help, he said: “The key to respond to such a complex and now clearly an international threat of the dimension that we’ve seen is information sharing — the ability to collect and connect the right intelligence at the right time.”
Ministers also agreed to press for a deal by the end of the year on sharing airline travellers’ data, the so-called Passenger Name Record (PNR) programme, which has long been stalled in the European Parliament over concerns for privacy.
Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Richard Balmforth