Creation of an automated system to determine who is allowed to enter the Schengen area is necessary but rights of travellers must be upheld, says EESC
The European Commission's plan to set up a European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) to strengthen security checks on visa-free travellers to the Schengen area is inevitable at present due to the current security situation, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) said at its last plenary session.
In its opinion on the EC proposal for a regulation establishing ETIAS, adopted in April, the EESC stressed that the information gathered through this system would enable a more effective management of the Schengen borders but it also called on the Commission to address the issue of non-Schengen EU member states.
"The information gathered via this system will allow for the prior verification of potential security or irregular migration risks to protect EU citizens against persons entering with ill intent," the rapporteur Jan Simons said.
"This step may not be welcomed by all travellers from third countries with visa-free regime, but it fits into the general strategy of the EU in the area of migration and security," he maintained, adding that the EU still wants to keep its borders open. Furthermore, ETIAS will also bring advantages to travellers from non-EU countries such as reduced waiting time at the Schengen border crossings, he said.
The new authorisation system will apply to nationals from around 60 non-EU countries worldwide who can currently travel to the Schengen area without a visa. The number of these travellers is expected to increase by more than 30% in the next three years and reach some 40 million per year by 2020.
ETIAS, which should become operational by 2020, is described as a "lighter and more visitor-friendly regime than the visa", but potential visitors to the Schengen area will have to apply online for a prior travel authorisation and pay a 5 EUR fee if they are older than 18. The system will then conduct automatic checks against several EU information systems such as Interpol and Europol's database, SIS, EES and others, and the authorisation will be either granted or rejected the same day. It will be valid for multiple travels for five years. However, the final decision on whether a traveller may cross the Schengen border will still be made by national border guards.
Although supportive of the proposal, the EESC strongly stresses that ETIAS should fully respect the fundamental rights of applicants and their personal data protection.
The Committee insists that access to the data linked to travel authorisations, especially sensitive information about health, education and other issues, should be strictly limited to the authorities investigating criminal activities, terrorism, illegal immigration and other threats.
The EESC thinks the Commission proposal must also address the issue of the EU countries that are not part of the Schengen regime – Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus and Romania – and have no access to the SIS, VIS and EES databases. The current Commission proposal does not offer a solution on how ETIAS will function at their borders.
The EESC has also warned about the political aspects of having ETIAS in place, insisting that the authorities of the countries concerned must be informed about why mandatory travel authorisations are introduced as well as about their advantages. The Committee thinks the system should be introduced step by step.
The cost of introducing ETIAS is estimated at EUR 212.1 million and its annual cost should total EUR 85 million but it is expected that the revenue from the collected fees will entirely cover its operation costs.