The Civil Liberties Committee approved on Monday a regulation setting up a database for exchange of data between Member States on short-stay visas and visa applications from third country citizens who wish to enter the EU’s Schengen area.
The text is the result of an agreement with Council so the legislative process should be completed at the first reading stage after the full Parliament votes on the regulation in June. More than a hundred countries’ citizens are required to have a visa issued by a Member State to enter the Schengen area. The Visa Information System (VIS) should improve the implementation of a ‘common visa policy’ in Europe. It aims: to prevent an applicant who is refused a visa by one Schengen country applying to others („visa shopping”); to facilitate the fight against fraud and checks at external borders; to assist in the identification of those not meeting the conditions for entry, stay or residence in Schengen Member States; to ease the application of Dublin II regulation on asylum; and to help prevent threats to the internal security of Member States.
The personal data from visa applications stored in VIS will include biometrics (photographs and fingerprints) and written information such as the name, address and occupation of the applicant, date and place of the application, and any decision taken by the Member State responsible to issue, refuse, annul, revoke or extend the visa. The regulation stresses that biometrics will used under controlled circumstances, with the emphasis on first using the visa sticker number for verification, in conjunction with fingerprints, and with fallback procedures being put in place. Photographs will not be used for identification purposes as the technology is not yet ready.
The draft regulation states that designated authorities from Member States and Europol may also access data contained in the VIS in specific cases and following a substantiated written request, if this can contribute to the prevention or investigation of terrorist offences and other serious criminal offences. This access will be indirect, via central access points which will have to check that all the relevant conditions for accessing the data are complied with. In exceptional cases of urgency, these checks can be made afterwards. Transfer of data to third countries or international organizations may take place only „in an exceptional case of urgency, exclusively for the purposes of the prevention and detection of terrorist offences and of other serious criminal offences” and with the consent of the Member State who entered the data. Such transfers will be fully recorded and made available to national data protection authorities.
Strong data protection
The regulation contains strong data protection safeguards, something which has been a key goal for Parliament’s rapporteur, Sarah Ludford (UK), in her negotiations with Council. Access to data by internal security authorities will be always controlled and will happen only under specific and justified circumstances. The Visa Information System database will be managed in the future by a permanent Management Authority - funded from the EU budget - which will gather information from all Schengen countries. Only duly authorized staff of the relevant national visa, border control, immigration, asylum and internal security authorities will have access to the VIS. Such access will take place only if needed for verification at external borders, to examine an application for asylum or for the one of the limited number of other purposes set out in the Regulation. Additional provisions which have been included to ensure adequate data protection and data security standards include the training of specialized staff to deal with data and mandatory scrutiny by national data protection authorities. Finally, the regulation provides that each visa application file will be stored in the VIS for a maximum of 5 years.
Respect for human dignity
Thanks to Parliament’s negotiation with Council, an additional paragraph has been added to ensure that any processing of VIS data „will be proportionate to the objectives” and that „human dignity and integrity of the persons whose data is requested are respected”. Use of the data cannot lead to discrimination between visa applicants or visa holders on grounds of sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion, disability, age or sexual orientation, MEPs added to the text. The German presidency committed itself, through two political declarations, also to reach an agreement on two further dossiers linked to the VIS: the Framework decision on data protection and the Directive for the Return of illegal immigrants. Speaking after the adoption of her report, Baroness Ludford said: ”The vote today is welcome as the culmination of intense and detailed scrutiny of this highly important European border and internal security project. A sound and balanced first reading agreement has been reached with the German Presidency. The improvements due to MEPs’ input are a vindication of the new co-decision powers of the European Parliament in this field.”