EU nears anti-terror deal on sharing air passenger data

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EU mulls Schengen, passenger data changes

Brussels (AFP) - The EU on Friday neared the end of a five-year struggle for a deal on sharing the names of airline passengers to help trace returning jihadists, after pressure from member states in the wake of the Paris attacks.

Interior ministers from the 28 EU nations agreed on issues that had hobbled negotiations with the European Parliament for years. The parliament is now expected to grant final approval for the scheme within two weeks.

France, which is still reeling from the terror attacks that killed 130 people in Paris in November, spearheaded the push for an agreement by the end of the year on the Passenger Name Record (PNR) system.

"After so many years of debate, we have finally reached a deal on a European PNR," said Luxembourg interior minister Etienne Scheider, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU.

The ministers meeting in Brussels agreed to meet the European Parliament's demands on how long officials could store information on a passenger, without the traveller's identity being "masked".

France had wanted such information to remain unmasked for at least one year, but EU members settled instead for the six months parliament wanted.

France however got its wish for the PNR system to be applied to flights within the bloc, and not just those from European cities to destinations outside the EU.

"We have made a real breakthrough," said French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve. "We have succeeded in getting a compromise that answers our concerns."

A European passenger name data sharing system was first proposed five years ago, at the prodding of the United States, but parliament has blocked it over reservations about personal privacy.

- 'Good agreement' -

Timothy Kirkhope, who is responsible for steering the legislation through the European Parliament, said he would recommend that it be approved "without delay" by parliament's civil liberties committee.

"We cannot wait any longer to put this system in place. This is a good agreement that will deliver an effective tool for fighting terrorism and serious crime," he added.

A parliament spokeswoman told AFP the committee vote could take place as early as next week and the full parliament could vote on the deal on December 17.

EU interior ministers on Friday also discussed whether to extend border checks within the passport-free Schengen zone for up to two years, to help Europe cope with record migrant inflows.

Under current rules, such checks can be extended for up to a maximum of six months. No decisions were taken in Brussels on Friday.

The worst migrant crisis since World War II has put pressure on the Schengen zone, a pillar of the European project alongside the euro currency.

Countries like Germany, Austria and Sweden in the last few months have all reintroduced temporary border controls to try manage the flow of asylum seekers, most of whom enter the EU through Greece.

Greece has come under heavy fire from some member states for failing to secure its external borders but Jean Asselborn, who handles migration issues for Luxembourg, denied it could be expelled from Schengen.

"It is not legally possible to exclude a state from the Schengen area," Asselborn told a closing press conference.

"What Schengen provides is gradual steps to implement temporary interior border controls," Asselborn said, adding the priority was to ensure the swift "relocalisation" of migrants across the European Union.

EU president Luxembourg put on the table the possibility to extend internal border controls for up to two years rather than the normal six months.

Germany has already implemented these temporary controls in attempts to control the flow of migrants, announcing in November it would extend these controls until mid-February.

EU President Donald Tusk warned recently that the clock was ticking for Schengen while European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned that if Schengen failed then the euro would too.

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told reporters Friday the ministers urgently needed to come up with solutions on security and migration.

"Let me tell you we are running out of time. Time is not our ally anymore," he said.