The European Parliament called on Wednesday for US access to a global financial database in Belgium, name Swift, to be suspended due to concerns that the United States is snooping on the European Union, not just combating terrorism.
EU lawmakers voted to freeze Washington's ability to track international payments because of suspicions that it has abused an agreement giving it limited access to the Swift database.
They worry the United States is covertly drawing additional information from the database following leaked US documents aired by Globo, Brazil's biggest television network, indicating that the US government has secretly tapped into Swift.
Parliament has no formal powers to initiate the suspension or termination of an international deal, "the Commission will have to act if Parliament withdraws its support for a particular agreement", says the approved text.
"We need full transparency, especially with all the NSA revelations," said Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Liberals in the European Parliament, referring to the U.S. National Security Agency surveillance made public by fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
"Europe cannot accept that the data of private citizens is being accessed without anyone knowing about it," Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister, said.
Although not binding, the parliament's vote reflects public anger at reports of NSA spying on European citizens. The European Commission – the EU executive – and EU governments will still need to approve any suspension of U.S. access to SWIFT.
The European Commission said a statement that it was "still waiting for additional written assurances" that the United States is respecting its agreement with the EU, but had no immediate plans to propose a suspension of SWIFT to EU members.
‘US lap dog’
The United States denies any wrongdoing.
David Cohen, the US Treasury's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, has told EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström his government has respected the 2010 agreement, according to a 9 October statement by Malmström.
The EU shares data with the US. Treasury from Swift, which exchanges millions of financial messages on transactions across the world every day, but only on a limited basis to help intercept possible terrorism plots.
The agreement is part of transatlantic cooperation following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on US cities, which entered into force in August 2010. The EU-US TFTP agreement deals with the processing and transfer of bank messaging data to track terrorists' financial flows, which is seen as crucial in the US efforts to fight terrorism.
The parliament in Strasbourg voted 280 in favour and 254 against with 30 abstentions, calling for a suspension of the agreement until a full inquiry can clarify the situation.
"The EU cannot continue to remain silent in the face of these ongoing revelations: it gives the impression we are little more than a lap dog of the United States," said Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German Green in the parliament.
Globo's report of US financial spying was among a host of leaks by Snowden that have tested EU-US diplomatic relations.
French newspaper Le Monde reported this week that the NSA had recorded French telephone data on a huge scale between December 2012 and January this year. Other reports have accused the US government of bugging European Union offices.
The parliament's call follows another vote by EU lawmakers for a tougher data privacy regime including fines for companies such as Google, Facebook, Yahoo! that violate rules limiting how data is shared with non-EU countries.
Swift is a Belgium-based private company that handles the banking transactions of thousands of banks, including most European ones.
Following the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the US government used the new Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme (TFTP) to force Swift's American branch (which mirrors all data based in Belgium) to allow US officials access to all bank transactions in order to help anti-terrorism operations.
In a show of newly gained power under the Lisbon Treaty, in February 2010, the European Parliament blocked an interim Swift data-sharing agreement negotiated by the European Commission and the US Treasury (EurActiv 11/02/10).
Some European political groups, notably the liberal faction in the Parliament, have repeatedly criticised the agreement as "not only a restraint on European sovereignty but a massive intrusion into every single European citizen's privacy".
- Press release: MEPs call for suspension of EU-US bank data deal in response to NSA snooping (23 Oct. 2013)