There is no doubt the question of foreign fighters poses a serious challenge to some European policies. However, there is much doubt about the measures proposed in recent weeks to tackle the problem. Essentially, it is seen as a problem of border security and accordingly, most suggestions so far, propose either expanding border surveillance or allowing new exemptions on who is allowed to cross the external borders of the Schengen area.
What is under discussion is a renewed call for the introduction of a system of blanked data retention of airline passenger name records, as well as enhancing possibilities to refuse exit or re-entry of potential or known combatants. While it is obvious that both have serious implications with regard to fundamental rights including freedom of movement, privacy and the right to leave any country, the necessity and efficiency of the proposed measures still have not been demonstrated. I have strong doubts they will.
"Passenger name record data comes with the huge risk that innocent travellers will trigger alarm bells. There is also a huge danger of discrimination involved"
When the European court of justice annulled the data retention directive this summer, it did so because it established a system of indiscriminate, blanket data collection and retention. For this reason, nobody can reasonably deny that there is a link between that judgement and the proposal for an EU system to collect and retain airline passenger name record (PNR) data. Therefore, we are discussing measures which have not yet been proved to work and we do not know whether they comply with our standards on fundamental rights. This does not feel like a good idea.
One mistake here is the underlying idea that the fight against terrorism, where foreign fighters are treated as a subset, is something that can actually be dealt with at the external borders. Is border security and surveillance the right tool and is it effective?
The external borders might well be the right place to stop identified returning foreign fighters. However, even in this instance, we are talking about European citizens, possibly traumatised, and considered a threat precisely because of their trauma. If they have committed crimes, this is a case for police and prosecutors and for the sake of our own safety we should offer help to these individuals.
But what of the potential for future fighters? Surely we would like to know who they are before they board a plane to Syria and their reasons for engaging in such activity. PNR is promising the former but not proven to actually deliver. It comes with the danger of false positives and the huge risk that innocent travellers, with nothing to do with any war, will trigger alarm bells. There is also a huge danger of discrimination involved because people of Arabic or Middle- Eastern origin are much more likely to be considered suspects. We are still dependent on hints from parents, teachers, friends and neighbours, who remain the best source. Limiting civil liberties is probably not the way to improve the trust of people in our authorities.
There is one more thing at odds with the idea of tackling terrorism at the external borders. The attack in Europe with the highest number of victims in recent times was the horrible attack at Udoya, committed by Anders Behring Breivik. He did not have to cross any border nor board an airplane. And in Germany, a group of neo-nazis went unrecognised for 10 years, murdering immigrants and a policewoman. These examples show that trying to fight this sort of crime by exclusively focusing on our external borders is not fighting it appropriately.