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After Brussels attacks, France’s Valls renews push for Europe-wide flight database

FREDERICK FLORIN / AFP | Members of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left party protest against a PNR (Passenger name record) agreement on April 19, 2012, in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France
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One day after terror attacks in Brussels killed more than 30 people, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has renewed his calls for a Europe-wide database for tracking airline passengers.


Yesterday’s attacks, which targeted Brussels’s Zaventem airport and the Maelbeek metro station, have renewed the debate over a Passenger Name Record (PNR) system, which would allow airlines and security authorities across Europe to share vital information on airline passengers.

"It is urgent to adopt the European PNR,” Valls said on Wednesday. “The European Parliament has waited too long to adopt this text. It must examine and adopt it in April; it's time."

France has pushed the European Parliament to adopt a PNR several times in recent years, saying such a system would help prevent further terror attacks.

"We are at war," Valls told French parliament on Tuesday. "I say in particular to the socialist and environmental groups in the European Parliament: Everyone should assume their responsibilities. We have lost enough time on this issue."

Left-leaning members of the parliament have opposed such a measure over worries about the use and security of personal data.

Although a PNR would not have prevented Tuesday’s airport attack, which targeted the departures area before security checkpoints, the idea has repeatedly been floated in the wake of new terror attacks in Europe.

How it would work

The PNR would store 19 pieces of information on each passenger, including flight dates, itineraries, information on the ticket, passenger contact information, the name of the booking agency, payment method, seat number and luggage data.

The goal of the PNR would be for airlines to send passenger data to security officials in each European country. The data could then be checked by national authorities against their own lists of wanted persons or terror suspects.

The US, UK, Canada and Australia already use such databases.

Opposition in EU Parliament

Opposition to the PNR in the European Parliament comes mainly from members of the European Green Party, the Radical Party of the Left and the Socialist Party.

The parliament had already voted down the PNR measure once in 2013. France brought it up again after the Charlie Hebdo attacks and again after the November Paris attacks. The European Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties finally approved the measure in December 2015 under direct pressure from Valls.

A general vote was scheduled for March 2016 but had already been pushed back to April or May before yesterday’s attacks occurred.

Useful but limited

Although a PNR could be effective for combatting terror in the future, it may not have the wide impact that Valls and other supporters claim.

“The PNR certainly wouldn’t have allowed us to avoid the Brussels attacks because they took place in the airport departure hall [before security],” Emmanuel Dupuy, president of the Institut Prospective et Sécurité en Europe (Institute for the Future and Security of Europe), told FRANCE 24.

“But it would facilitate exchanges of information between European powers and would answer many of the questions that investigators are asking right now,” Dupuy added.

The PNR as it was approved in December includes controls to protect personal information: Data would be saved for six months, after which it would be hidden. The information would be completely erased after five years.

“The PNR is different than the Patriot Act in America because it does not coordinate the full range of data collected by all intelligence organisations” in the Schengen area, Dupuy explained. “It is less radical.”

Josef Janning, Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, said that intelligence gains from the PNR would be “modest”.

“Security services know from the info on mobility patterns that terror cells within the EU do not use air transport because of the risk of exposure,” Janning told FRANCE 24. The suspects in the November Paris attacks, for example, traveled by car and not by plane.

Valls has suggested that the PNR could help stop people with ties to terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq from entering Europe, but both Dupuy and Janning were sceptical about this.

“The PNR would not be more effective in stopping the theft of passports”, of which the Islamic State (IS) group is accused, Dupuy said.

Janning said that “the crucial issue is the lack of information pooling among EU national intelligence services”.

“The weakness rests in the insufficient usage of these systems in the periphery of the Schengen zone,” where terrorists enter Europe, Janning said.

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