Controls on land travel vs. the right to free movement
In a partial but symbolically significant victory, the Belgian government has postponed a final vote in the national Parliament on legislation to require certain international railways to provide passenger name records (PNRs) to the government for surveillance and advance “vetting” of train travelers, as is already being done for air travelers between the EU, the US, and other countries.
(Text of the proposed law in French and Flemish/Dutch; report on first reading in Parliament; analysis and commentary in English; legislative history; legislative status.)
The Belgian proposal was approved by the anti-terror committee in Parliament despite a threat by the German national railway to suspend its high-speed services to Belgium if the bill passes, as well as other criticism.
One Belgian think tank, analyzing the proposal in the context of other anti-terrorism proposals, concluded that, “The creation of a Belgian PNR system is a good illustration of this dynamic: taking it as a given that it will facilitate the arrest of terrorists who are planning attacks is something of a fairy tale…. Social sciences, unlike astrology, is not about predicting the future.”
The decisive factor in the Belgian government’s decision to postpone the scheduled final vote in the national Parliament appears to have been intervention by the European Commission in response to a formal complaint by Access Now that the law would violate the right of EU citizens to move freely within the EU.
As with “rights” for US citizens that aren’t recognized as human rights for all, a decision by the EU or Belgium based solely on the rights of EU citizens falls short of full recognition of the right to travel. But so far as we know, this is the first time that the EU has blocked any proposed travel surveillance or control measure, in the EU or any of its members states, on the basis of the right to freedom of movement.
We hope that the Belgian government will withdraw its railway PNR proposal entirely, not leave it pending, and that other EU member states will take note of the incompatibility of measures like this with fundamental European and human rights principles.
Unfortunately, the Belgian government neither withdrew this proposal nor let it quietly expire. On December 22, 2016, it was hastily brought up for a vote, with little debate, and approved by the Belgian Parliament:
Supporters of the bill pointed to reports that a suspect in the attack on a Christmas market in Berlin a few days earlier had traveled by train and bus through Belgium, the Netherlands, and France before being stopped and killed in Italy:
The idea is now being raised by Belgium with the governments of neighboring countries: the Netherlands, Germany, and France:
The implications of this and related measures for surveillance and control of travelers within the European Union will be debated at a public forum in Brussels on January 24th, in conjunction with the annual conference on Computers, Privacy, and Data Protection: