Liberal and socialist groups in the European Parliament have tried since March to set up a plenary vote on the controversial Privacy Shield data transfer agreement to the United States. With member states’ final verdict slated for next month, MEPs are running out of time to vote before the deal is finalised.
Soon after the European Commission published the text of its agreement with the US government in late February, Dutch ALDE MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld (D66) requested Parliament draft a resolution on Privacy Shield and vote on it in the next plenary session.
Privacy Shield is set to replace the now infamous Safe Harbour agreement, which was ruled invalid by the European Court of Justice last October on grounds that it didn’t protect EU citizens’ data once they are transferred to the US.
Commission officials have vowed to finalise the new agreement by the end of June. The go-ahead from member states is the only formal roadblock standing in the way.
Any resolution from the Parliament on Privacy Shield would not be binding. But some MEPs want to signal their disapproval and pressure the Commission to make last minute changes before member states rubberstamp the deal.
Since March, MEPs’ plans to vote on the agreement have been in limbo. ALDE managed to gain support from the S&D group, but still came up short of the majority needed to put a resolution on the legislature’s agenda.
A spokeswoman said the ALDE group will request for a resolution to be voted on during the two-day plenary session in Brussels on 25-26 May.
It would be “practically impossible” to draft a joint resolution in time for the Strasbourg plenary session in mid-May, the ALDE spokeswoman said.
But that means that if MEPs vote on Privacy Shield, it will likely be after the group of legal councillors from member states have already signed off on the agreement.
The group is meeting today (29 April) and again on 19 May. A Commission spokesman said the national officials are scheduled to vote on the agreement during the 19 May meeting.
One diplomat who will vote on Privacy Shield said of the MEPs’ plan to draft a resolution, “They can have a vote, but what is the value?”
“Now opinions are entirely formed at national level. By the time they come up with a vote on this it will probably be too late anyway,” the diplomat said, adding that a resolution from MEPs would only shake the executive’s final decision if national parliaments also choose to vote on the agreement.
In ‘t Veld said the European Commission could also “show some courtesy and wait for the Parliament to take a position”.
But she argued that MEPs aren’t pressed for time to weigh in on the privacy agreement before the group of national diplomats votes.
“It will not be too late because an adequacy decision is up to the Commission and, like with Safe Harbour, we can always ask the Commission to appeal,” in ‘t Veld added.
The EPP group did not support ALDE’s bid to get Privacy Shield onto the European Parliament’s voting agenda. But once word spread that in ‘t Veld was pushing for a vote on the agreement, EPP advisors started drafting the group’s own resolution.
In a draft version obtained by EURACTIV.com, the EPP warns “against any attempt to jeopardise the finalisation of the Privacy Shield” and plunge companies into legal chaos.
The resolution was dated 6 April and signed by Germans Axel Voss and Monika Hohlmeier, Polish MEP Michal Boni and Maltese MEP Roberta Metsola.
Voss told EURACTIV, “We don’t see the necessity for a resolution on the Parliament level”.
“It’s a duty of the Commission at the end,” he added.
Voss said the EPP would not initiate getting a resolution on the Parliament’s plenary agenda but would also not oppose a vote if a majority of parties are in favour.
“Of course the Parliament can dream up a kind of framework that at the end would not be a reality,” Voss said.
One Parliament source said some MEPs wanted to delay a vote until after a delegation of nine MEPs from the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee (LIBE) returns from a trip to Washington scheduled for 16-18 May.
The group will meet with Catherine Novelli, an undersecretary at the US State Department who was tapped to take on the new ombudsman role to review privacy complaints under the Privacy Shield. MEPs will also meet Edith Ramirez, chair of the Federal Trade Commission, which will respond to privacy complaints as well.
The US-EU Safe Harbour agreement allowed over 4,000 companies to transfer data from the EU to the US - provided the companies guaranteed the data's security abroad. EU law considers data privacy protections to be inadequate in the US. In October 2015, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled Safe Harbour to be invalid on grounds that government surveillance in the US threatens the privacy of EU citizens' data, and that there is no judicial redress for EU citizens whose data is accessed by state surveillance agencies in the US.
Since the ECJ decision, EU and US negotiators have sped up their talks to strike a new data transfer agreement. European data protection authorities from the 28 EU member states met after the ECJ decision, and asked the Commission to come up with a new deal by the end of January 2016. The data protection authorities are tasked with investigating and deciding on privacy complaints in their own member states.
- 29 April 2016: member state representatives meet to negotiate on Privacy Shield
- 19 May 2016: member state representatives meet to vote on Privacy Shield
- 16-18 May 2016: delegation from the European Parliament's LIBE Committee visits Washington
- 25-26 May 2016: two-day Parliament plenary session in Brussels
- by end of June 2016: European Commission aims to have final agreement on Privacy Shield