Despite being in the works for nearly a decade, the EU passenger name records (PNR) directive has hit yet another roadblock. A provisional deal with the Council was approved by Parliament's civil liberties, justice and home affairs committee last December; however the file must be endorsed in plenary before it can become law.
Despite this, a request from the EPP and ECR groups to include it on this week's Strasbourg voting agenda was rejected by other groupings. This prompted a war of words between MEPs and accusations of 'game-playing' from all sides.
The two centre-right groups were particularly critical of S&D and ALDE group Chairs Gianni Pittella and Guy Verhofstadt, pointing out that they had repeatedly voiced their support for EU PNR, yet had refused to submit it to a vote this week.
Axel Voss, EPP group shadow rapporteur on the dossier, claimed they were, "taking EU citizens and their security hostage by playing political games. It is our responsibility to implement laws and to take action that can prevent terrorist attacks such as the one in Paris on 13 November."
He continued; "There was no reasonable argument for not having this vote this week. In 2015, we voted on two parliamentary resolutions where we committed ourselves to concluding the file at the end of last year."
"What are we waiting for? We owe this EU PNR directive to the victims of the French terrorist attacks. The left should take this into consideration. There was absolutely no justification for postponing the EU PNR vote any longer", added Voss.
Rapporteur Timothy Kirkhope was equally outraged, saying PNR was, "a critical counter-terrorism tool, which our governments say they desperately need to ensure people's safety. It should not be toyed around with like this for party political purposes."
The ECR group MEP pointed out that; "The proposal is ready. We have an agreement with EU governments. The civil liberties committee has adopted it. The lawyers have finished their work. What are we waiting for?"
"There is no legitimate public interest reason to keep postponing this vote. A couple of group leaders are preventing the European Parliament from having its democratic right to hold a vote on this legislation. If leaders want to vote against it, then they that is their right and they can justify that decision to their electorates. However, they cannot justify continually seeking to bury this vote."
Predictably, the Socialist and Liberal groups refuted the accusations, saying that the EPP and ECR groups were, in fact, the ones playing 'political games'.
Birgit Sippel, S&D group spokesperson for justice and home affairs, said; "We are seeing right wing groups once again trying to play politics with important issues. Regarding PNR, our position has not changed. PNR will be voted on alongside the data protection package, as soon as both texts are ready."
"It does not make sense to vote on PNR - which involves collecting large amounts of personal data - until we have a clear and complete legal framework on how that data can be stored, used and managed."
Sippel added; "PNR can help in the fight against terrorism, however it is deeply irresponsible to present it as a silver bullet. What has been clear in the last few months is that better cooperation between national law enforcement agencies is needed urgently."
"That is why the data protection package, specifically the police directive, is so important. Clear rules on how information can be stored and shared are essential if we want to foster the better cooperation that is needed to keep European citizens safe. If we really want to tackle the threat of terror, we need all possible tools to do so."
Meanwhile, Guy Verhofstadt had a number of questions; "If EPP and ECR really wanted to speed up the process, why didn't they follow our proposal for a PNR based on a regulation with immediate effect, rather than a directive taking two years to implement? And why not a single
European database instead of 28 separate national systems? And why did they not agree on a mandatory exchange of information?"
"The Paris attacks have shown that more than a lack of information, it is a lack of 'sharing' information between our intelligence and police services that causes disasters like that in Paris."
The Belgian MEP accused the two groups of "playing dirty games. PNR is for them only a smokescreen, to show the public that they are doing something, while refusing to give the EU real and effective instruments in the fight against terrorism (such as a European Intelligence capacity, a PNR regulation, mandatory information sharing). Doing so, the EPP and the ECR are showing that loose sovereignty is, for them, much more important that the security of the European citizens."