Select Committee on European Union Ninth Report

Schengen Information System II (SIS II)

CHAPTER 1: introduction

The subject of our inquiry

1.  One of the main aims of the Treaty establishing the European Economic Community, signed in Rome almost exactly half a century ago, was "the abolition, as between Member States, of obstacles to the free movement of goods, persons, services and capital". Chief among such obstacles was of course the checks imposed at the borders between the States. Even then, progress had been made towards the abolition of some of those obstacles between three of the six original Member States, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, by the Benelux Customs Union, which became operative in 1948, and subsequently by the Benelux Economic Union.

2.  By 1985 considerable progress had been made towards relaxing border controls on the movement of goods, services and capital, but restrictions on the movement of persons other than workers remained. Five of the (by then) ten Member States[1] were frustrated by the slow progress, and in that year France and Germany joined the Benelux countries in an agreement which was "prompted by the resolve to achieve the abolition of checks at their common borders on the movement of nationals of the Member states of the European Communities and to facilitate the movement of goods and services at those borders".[2] That agreement was signed in the Luxembourg border village of Schengen on 14 June 1985.[3]

3.  The principal purposes of border checks on persons include keeping the unwanted out—for example, undesirable aliens—and preventing the wanted from leaving, chiefly those suspected of criminal offences. Those manning the borders need of course to have detailed information about such persons. If border checks between two countries are reduced or eliminated, as a compensatory measure that information needs to be shared at the external frontiers of both countries. Without this pooling of information, a fugitive wanted in France and seeking to escape to England could simply travel to Belgium without any check at the border, and cross from Belgium to England through a border where his name would be unknown to Belgian frontier guards. The 1985 Schengen Agreement, a brief document setting out matters of principle, said nothing about the sharing of information, but the 1990 Convention which fully implemented the Agreement[4] created a multinational database for the use of immigration, border control, judicial and police authorities in any of the States which fully apply the Schengen Convention: the Schengen Information System (the SIS).

4.  The Schengen Convention was incorporated by the Treaty of Amsterdam as part of the law of the EU, and now extends fully to all the fifteen States which were members of the EU before the 2004 and 2007 accessions other than the United Kingdom and Ireland, and also separately to Norway and Iceland. But the SIS is no longer adequate for this purpose. It is therefore being replaced by a second generation Schengen Information System. It is this—SIS II—which is the subject of our inquiry.

5.  Initially, the main perceived need for a new version of the SIS was to accommodate the inclusion of the EU's new Member States, since the initial design of the SIS had not provided for the participation of more than 18 States. (Q 422) But a second perceived need was to take the opportunity provided by the creation of a new system to allow the inclusion of biometric data.

Reasons for the inquiry

6.  The computer database of SIS II is of the same order of magnitude as some of the largest United Kingdom public service databases. As so often with these, problems have arisen in the course of establishing SIS II which have caused considerable delay. We have examined the reasons for this, the consequences of the delay (especially for the newer Member States), and an interim solution which has been adopted to cater for this, and which may itself cause further delay.

7.  A database of this size, with immense lists of wanted and unwanted persons and objects, raises major data protection issues. We have looked at the adequacy of the data provisions, and the potential for conflict between them. Inaccuracies in the information stored could lead to the wrong persons being stopped at borders or arrested, or to persons being allowed to pass freely who should have been stopped. We have considered whether the use of biometric information would enhance the accuracy of the system.

8.  United Kingdom Governments have never shown any enthusiasm for the reduction and eventual elimination of checks at frontiers. We have retained our border controls, and our right to do so is recognised by the Treaty of Amsterdam.[5] Ireland, since it is part of the common travel area, is in the same position. The special position of the United Kingdom was the subject of our report Schengen and the United Kingdom's Border Controls, published in March 1999.[6] That report considered the position of the United Kingdom in relation to the SIS.[7] But in the last eight years much has changed, and the current position of the United Kingdom was considered during this inquiry.

Conduct of the inquiry

9.  In June 2006 we issued a call for written evidence which is reproduced in Appendix 2. In reply we received evidence from eight persons and bodies. In the course of October and November 2006 we heard oral evidence from 24 witnesses, including six during a visit to Brussels on 27 and 28 November. We are most grateful to all those witnesses who sent us written evidence and gave us oral evidence.

10.  Throughout the inquiry we have had as our Specialist Adviser Steve Peers, Professor of Law at the University of Essex Centre for European Law. His unrivalled knowledge of the subject has been of the greatest assistance to us. We are very grateful for all his help.

Structure of this report

11.  In the following chapter we look in more detail at the chronological and legislative background, and in chapter 3 at how the system works in practice. Chapter 4 considers how it is and should be managed, and chapter 5 the access to the data. In chapter 6 we look at the data protection issues, while chapter 7 investigates the special position of the United Kingdom in relation to immigration data. Finally we summarise our conclusions and recommendations. We recommend this report to the House for debate.

1   The United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark joined the original six Member States (the Benelux, France, Germany and Italy) in 1973, and Greece in 1981. The Treaty of Accession of Spain and Portugal was signed in 1985, but the accession did not take place until 1986.  Back

2   Fourth recital to the Agreement. Back

3   The 1985 Schengen Agreement is published in OJ 2000 L 239/13. Back

4   The 1990 Schengen Convention is published in OJ 2000 L 239/19. Back

5   Protocol on the position of the United Kingdom and Ireland, annexed to the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty establishing the European Community. Back

6   7th Report, Session 1998-99, HL Paper 37. Back

7   Paragraphs 34-40 of the report. Back

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