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Europe's democratic institutions
PASSPORTS, FINGERPRINTS and FRAUDS
The European Commission has announced its adoption of the technical specifications for a biometric passport. This will store not only the picture of the holder’s face (which has electronically measured characteristics) but also two fingerprints stored electronically on a chip. Experts say data security is unbreakable. Only the electronic passport reader, they say, can retrieve this data. It will be compared with the face and the fingerprints of the holder as he or she passes through the border control. The reader-machines do not store and register data, they say, therefore personal data is safe.
The experts may congratulate themselves on the technical advance. But many people find it repugnant to have their fingerprints taken. For them only criminals have their fingerprints taken. Forcing the whole population to have their fingerprints taken makes them feel morally suspect. The Commission Vice-president Franco Frattini, however, says he is ‘particularly proud’ that about this ‘key step forward to render passports of EU citizens more secure and reliable.’ The harmonized introduction of biometric identifiers in EU passports will also ensure that the identity of the holder can be easily established and will protect against identity fraud. Placing intimate personal details into the hands of anonymous officials requires trust. In a democracy trust is built after full consultation of all levels of society and before such data is given to officials.
Let us examine the measure in the light of the criteria that Robert Schuman set for European democracy. European laws should, he said, ‘be in the service of the people and made in agreement with it.’ Europe is based on both fundamental freedoms and service.
What service does the storage of intimate personal data provide? It helps the airlines and the passport officers process the traffic more quickly. If a passport is stolen it apparently makes identity fraud more difficult by using two cryptic keys necessary for reading it. Such sophistication makes the trade in false passports more difficult.
European passport and liberty
Before the First World War people could enter and leave most foreign countries without a passport. We have still not regained this level of mutual trust. A passport was originally granted by countries at war as the means to assure the protection of persons and property. Even during European wars, scientists of belligerent powers were able to meet. Passports should not be preserved as an unhelpful symbol of selfish exclusion.
The European founders wanted to regain these freedoms and break down unnecessary barriers. They established the Council of Europe in 1949. Schuman and the other founders set the ultimate goal: get rid of passports. 'Why create a European passport,' asked Britain's Ernest Bevin. 'Wouldn't it be simpler and more efficient to eliminate all existing passports?' The first efforts to make common passports were held up by committees of national ‘experts on passports’. Italy's Count Sforza said prophetically: 'What on earth are 'passport experts'? If you put administrative people who make them inside a committee, you will never solve the problem. They will show that it is impossible to get rid of passports!' Sure enough, it reached a bureaucratic logjam. Then some enlightened politicians including Belgium’s Paul-Henri Spaak insisted that the technocratic horse should not be leading the political riders. ‘Once democratic politicians have decided that something must be done, experts have the duty to find the means to do it. If they raise technical objections, they must then find the remedies.’ However the committee of experts had started complicating matters which both ministers and parliamentarians had just succeeded in simplifying. 'Passport experts' became guardians of this technocratic heritage.
The real cost
Any move to serve the citizens with the new passports is welcome. But what will be the advantage to the citizen of expensive electonic passports? How will they serve him or her? Although civil servants at the borders are also there to serve, making the life easier for officials at a high cost to the citizen is not what Schuman meant by serving the people. Is Europe's goal for passports still their programmed elimination? Who has spoken on this policy?
If even half of the European population need and have to buy the new passports it will cost tens of billions of euros. That is like an extra tax, restricting travel, commerce and human contact. This democratic debt has to be justified by a bonus for democracy, service and liberty. Where is it?
Non-democratic countries have no compunctions.
It would be invidious to go into details on the nature of how democracies
themselves do this same counterfeiting job. Suffice it to recall the case
of France, a country that prides itself in the rights of man. It used fake
passports of Switzerland, a neutral country that takes a totally non-aggressive
posture, to disguise its secret agents. These ‘Swiss’ passport-holders
entered on New Zealand territory, another small, peaceful country. The
agents then destroyed a ship about to protest nuclear bomb tests elsewhere,
thus killing one person. If Swiss passports are not safe from other democracies,
what passports are safe from hostile countries?
Further, terrorists are now too often ‘home-grown’. They do not need passports as they are already EU citizens. If the main reason to introduce the passports was to prevent terrorism, then it means that 99.9999 percent of the population is paying a considerable amount extra for a security service that is here irrelevant and proved to be futile.
Agreement of the people
It is precisely the human factor that has been left out of many technology-driven projects. Schuman stressed that democratic politics must prevail over technocracy. Technocracy was Europe’s greatest danger, he said. If the Parliament does not have its full impact on this decision, how can it be in agreement with the people? Even more important in the original treaties are the Consultative Committees such as the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of Regions. Today their members are nominees of government ministers. Membership is agreed in ministers’ secret councils and chosen too often because of their party political cards. Their members should, according to the treaties, be representative of civil society. Patronage is not democratic representation. It is, as Schuman put it, a counterfeit. ‘Nothing is easier for political counterfeiters to exploit good principles for an illusion and nothing is more disastrous than good principles badly applied.’
Consult the people
Democracy involving full consultation should not be a complication for ministers. It is usually the most efficient way to proceed. It should be welcome.
Ask the people.
DAVID PRICE. © 1989, 2006.