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Civil liberties, data privacy, protecting the vulnerable  

Safeguarding civil liberties in times of economic crisis


Parliament has worked since 2009 to ensure that everyone living in the EU enjoys the same basic rights and freedom of movement, stressing that the economic and financial crisis must not be used as an excuse to restrict them.


The EP has helped boost protection for children and crime victims and has pushed for stricter EU-wide criminal penalties.


It has been at the forefront of a major overhaul of data protection rules to protect privacy and ensure that internet and cloud companies inform people if their data is requested by a non-EU government. MEPs also seized the initiative in setting up an investigation into the surveillance activities of the US and some EU countries affecting European citizens.


Parliament forced changes to air-passenger and bank-data-sharing accords with the US and rejected an anti-counterfeiting treaty because of concerns over privacy and internet freedom.


MEPs also played a major part in extending basic rights, such as adequate accommodation and medical care, to asylum seekers in Europe as well as in helping EU countries that face huge influxes of asylum seekers.

 

1. Better protection of victims

During the parliamentary term, MEPs strengthened EU laws to combat the sexual abuse of children and child pornography, fight human trafficking and protect victims of crime across the EU.


Protecting children online


Parliament pushed for EU-wide rules on the prevention of online abuse, the prosecution of offenders and the protection of child victims. Child abusers and viewers of child sex images on the web will face tough penalties under new rules backed by MEPs. Parliament succeeded in its negotiations with national governments in obtaining the prompt removal of web pages containing or disseminating child pornography hosted in their territories.


Fighting human trafficking


Traffickers in human beings face tougher penalties, thanks to a law pushed throughby the EP. These rules apply to trafficking in the sex industry or labour exploitation, for example, on building sites, on farms or in domestic service. As a result of the efforts of MEPs, victims are now entitled to better protection and assistance, such as accommodation, counselling and medical treatment.


EU-wide protection for crime victims


Measures to protect crime victims from aggressors already exist in all EU member states but currently cease to apply if the victim moves to another country. Parliament passed a law to ensure that from January 2015 anyone protected in one EU country will get similar protection if they move to another. MEPs made sure that the rules would cover all victims of crime, not just victims of gender violence. The European Protection Order aims to protect victims from crimes including harassment, abduction, stalking and attempted murder, in addition to gender violence.

 
 

2. Protecting privacy, personal data and internet freedom

Setting limits to the massive collection of personal data by social networks, search engines and other online service providers and, at the same time, cutting red tape for business has been at the core of Parliament’s work in a major overhaul of the EU's data protection rules.


MEPs backed a proposal  to place the owners of personal data at the centre of the new laws, ensuring that they know exactly what personal information is being collected and for what purposes. They would also have the right to have their data erased on request, including on the internet, and they would have to give their explicit consent to any processing of their data. Fines levied on firms that fail to comply should be raised (and amount to up to 5% of annual worldwide turnover), MEPs said.


MEPs also inserted new safeguards for data transfers to countries outside the EU. If a non-EU government requests a company (such as a search engine, social network or cloud provider) to disclose personal information processed in the EU, the firm would have to seek authorisation from the national data protection authority before transferring any data. The company would also have to inform the person concerned of such a request.


Parliament took the lead in deciding to set up an in-depth inquiry into US surveillance programmes, including the bugging of EU premises, as well as other surveillance activities carried out by EU member states. Presenting its findings at the end of the inquiry, Parliament stated that the fight against terrorism can never justify secret and illegal mass surveillance.


Parliament forced the renegotiation of a deal with the US on access to the personal data of airline passengers in May 2010 in order to tighten privacy safeguards. When EU passengers travel to the US and Australia the authorities of those countries are able to store details such as names, addresses or credit card numbers. But MEPs secured stricter limits to the data retention periods and stronger safeguards to avoid abuse. For example, the authorities do not have direct access to the air carriers' databases.


Parliament used its new powers acquired in 2009 to veto a deal with the US on bank data transfers – the Terrorism Finance Tracking Programme (TFTP). In July 2010, five months after voting down the initial deal, MEPs approved a revised version of the agreement which strengthened privacy and data protection. This was the first time Parliament flexed its muscles and rejected an international agreement.


The EP also voted down the high-profile Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) on international copyright protection in July 2012 owing to concerns over privacy and restrictions to the freedom of ordinary internet users which could even have led to criminal penalties for sharing movies on the internet.

In addition, the EU has moved forward in improving the protection of citizens from online crimes, strengthening penalties against perpetrators of cyber attacks and requiring major companies to report serious data breaches in their systems.

 
 

3. Rights for asylum seekers and border surveillance

A minimum set of rights for asylum seekers as soon as they arrive in EU countries, common procedures, common deadlines for handling asylum applications and more support for countries facing influxes of asylum seekers were Parliament's main achievements for the common European asylum system, which will be in place in the second half of 2015.


MEPs made key improvements to new rules on the reception and treatment of asylum seekers negotiated with the member states. They restricted the grounds for detaining asylum seekers and established the right to better living conditions, swifter access to the labour market and an early assessment of possible medical or psychological needs.


Parliament also forced national governments to ensure that the updated Dublin II regulation on transfers of asylum seekers between EU countries bans transfers to member states where there are systemic flaws in the asylum procedure and reception conditions resulting in a risk of inhuman or degrading treatment.


At the same time, it boosted solidarity with member states under pressure from large numbers of asylum applications, ensuring that asylum seekers are not sent to countries unable to cope. MEPs also pushed for a permanent system to share refugees among EU countries, but most national governments rejected the initiative.


EU member states will be better equipped to prevent, detect and combat irregular migration, but also to save migrants' lives, thanks to Parliament's contribution to the new "Eurosur" border surveillance system. Binding rules on search and rescue  to clarify how border guards serving in Frontex sea operations should deal with migrants and where they should disembark them were also approved due to Parliament's efforts.


MEPs ensured that EU countries will spend more EU money on improving their asylum systems and the integration of migrants, under the new Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund for 2014 to 2020. They also approved the EU Internal Security Fund, which will finance border surveillance and police cooperation activities until 2020.

 
 

4. Freedom of movement

One of the EU’s biggest achievements is the border-free Schengen area, where citizens can move freely without border controls, and Parliament has fought to keep it that way. MEPs made sure that any attempts to reintroduce temporary controls at the EU’s internal borders will only be allowed under strict conditions and as a measure of last resort. Thanks to Parliament, member states will not be able to consider migration as a threat to public policy or to internal security.

 
 

5. Tackling crime more effectively across borders

Crime knows no borders. Parliament made it harder for criminals to move across the EU and to hide their dirty money. It passed laws to tackle crimes such as corruption, money laundering, terrorism, drug trafficking and counterfeiting. In order to fight tax evasion, and make it more difficult for criminals to hide behind shell companies, it voted in tougher anti-money laundering rules, requiring all EU countries to set up public central registers listing the ultimate owners of companies, foundations, holdings and trusts.


MEPs also passed new rules to make it easier for national authorities to seize the proceeds of crime across the EU. Thanks to Parliament's input, EU countries will have to consider using the confiscated property for public interest or social purposes, e.g. charity or crime-prevention projects.


Note: the United Kingdom and Ireland do not participate fully in justice and home affairs legislation; they can decide whether they want to apply each specific piece of legislation in this field. Both countries are also excluded from the Schengen border-free area. Denmark has a permanent opt-out on justice and home affairs and is excluded from legislation in this area by default. The opt-out can only be changed through a referendum.