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Brussels (AFP) - The European Union agreed Friday to rush through reforms to the passport-free Schengen zone by the end of the year amid growing concerns about border security in the wake of the Paris attacks.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced the plan as he and his EU counterparts agreed in crisis talks to "immediately" tighten checks on Schengen's external borders while they wait for deeper changes.
"It's a crucial change," Cazeneuve told a press conference.
"The European Commission has agreed to present, by the end of the year, a plan to reform the Schengen border code to allow systematic and obligatory checks at all external borders for all travellers, including those who benefit from free movement."
The 26-nation Schengen area is a passport-free zone, and normally only non-EU nationals have their details checked against a database for terrorism and crime when they enter, but those checks will now be extended to EU citizens.
But the Paris attacks in which 130 people died have raised troubling questions about Schengen following the revelations that two of the attackers including ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud may have avoided checks while returning from Syria.
Pending new changes to the Schengen code, a statement by the ministers said that "member states undertake to implement immediately the necessary systematic and coordinated checks at external borders."
The planned changes are a further blow to Schengen as a pillar of European unity and freedom after an unprecedented influx of migrants has caused Germany and other member states to temporarily reintroduce internal border controls.
- European intelligence agency? -
Created in 1995, the Schengen area -- named after a border town in Luxembourg -- now comprises 22 of the EU's 28 countries plus non-EU Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, and Lichtenstein.
Britain, Ireland, Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania and Cyprus are not Schengen members.
French Justice Minister Christine Taubira, who was at the crisis meeting, called for greater joint efforts to fight recruitment by the Islamic State group, calling it a "monstrosity which has huge resources."
The commission, the executive arm of the 28-nation EU, also called for the establishment of an EU-wide intelligence agency amid concerns over how the Paris gunmen and suicide bombers slipped under the radar despite some showing signs of radicalism.
"I believe it is a moment to make one more step forward and put the basis for the creation of a European intelligence agency," commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, although he later said it was only "ideal idea" after Germany criticised the plan.
The interior ministers also agreed to crack down on the illegal trade in firearms, such as the Kalashnikov assault rifles used by the Paris attackers.
They invited Europol and the EU borders agency Frontex to help member states bordering the western Balkans to detect smuggling of firearms.
France also also pushed for the EU to agree on a US-style Passenger Name Record (PNR) system, which involves collecting EU passenger data, by the end of the year.
The plan is controversial in Europe due to concerns over how to protect personal information while fighting terrorism and serious crime.
Cazeneuve meanwhile said France would keep the border controls it established last Friday "as long as the terrorist threat makes it necessary."