Angry MEPs demand delay on EU-US bank data deal

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MEPs today (21 January) clashed with EU ministers, calling for a delay to the entry into force of the so-called SWIFT agreement, a EU-US deal maintaining the transfer of EU citizens’ banking data to US investigators.

MEPs have been fuming about this issue since the Council on 30 November 2009 framed an interim agreement with the US, without allowing the European Parliament to vote on it. 

Parliament argued that EU ministers had gone behind its back, rushing to conclude the deal before the Lisbon Treaty entered into force on 1 December and MEPs gained greater powers in this area (EURACTIV 01/12/09).

The interim agreement is due to come into force on 1 February and will last for nine months, after which a permanent deal will be required, with parliamentary input. In December, Parliament President Jerzy Buzek wrote to Swedish Premier Fredrik Reinfeldt – then European Council president – expressing the chamber’s disappointment with the outcome. Buzek also reminded Reinfeldt of the latter’s pledge that “the Parliament will be called upon to give its consent before the agreement can be concluded”. 

Buzek underscored three conditions – mainly relating to provisions for proper oversight – that the Council would need to fulfil in the final draft of the interim agreement in order for MEPs to support it. 

Things took a turn for the worse this month, however, as MEPs waited in vain for word from the Council. Their anger grew on 13 January, when the agreement appeared in the official journal of the EU. 

The Parliament’s Conference of Presidents, including President Buzek and all political group leaders, met on 14 January, deeming the situation “unacceptable”. 

On 15 January, Buzek wrote to rotating EU Council President-in-Office José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and Permanent EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy, noting that “it would seem that the Council intends to allow the interim agreement to enter into application […] without the Parliament having been able to vote on the text in advance,” reads the letter. 

Buzek cautioned that it would be “unwise” for the Council to push through such an “inherently controversial” agreement without the Parliament’s assent. 

Council has ‘humiliated’ MEPs 

Buzek gave the Council a 20 January deadline to respond. When this deadline expired yesterday, MEPs responded angrily, directing scathing attacks at Spanish EU Affairs Minister Diego López Garrido, who represented the Council before the Parliament in Strasbourg. 

Garrido claimed that the delay in sending the agreement to Parliament was due to the need to translate documents into all EU languages, an explanation scoffed at by MEPs. “We’re not playing for time,” Garrido said to audible jeering. 

“This House has been humiliated,” Portuguese leftist MEP Rui Tavares responded. 

Council buys 10-day window for SWIFT transfers 

Garrido said Parliament would receive the text on Monday 25 January, giving MEPs a grand total of five working days to scrutinise the document. “The way you have handled this shows that the Council doesn’t give a fig about the Parliament,” Socialist group leader Martin Schulz said. 

Parliament will now refer the text to its Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) committee, which will deliberate on it before it is voted on in a plenary session on 9-10 February. 

However, this means that the interim agreement will still provisionally enter into force on 1 February, and even if the Parliament were to reject it, US investigators would be permitted to access EU bank data during that 10-day window. 

Delay the deal, say MEPs 

As a result, Buzek and liberal group leader Guy Verhofstadt today said they will ask the Council to delay the entry into force of the interim agreement. “The letter will ask to delay, from 1 February, say to 15 February, the interim agreement on SWIFT. So I expect that the European Council will do that and wait for the Parliament to take a decision on 9-10 February,” Buzek concluded. 

German Green MEP Rebecca Harms said it would be "extremely dangerous if the Council lets this interim agreement come into force without a vote in the Parliament. If they push to have it in place by 1 February, it would be a provocation and an infringement of the treaty," she added. 

UK Conservative MEP Timothy Kirkhope, whose country has backed SWIFT from the start, said that recent events – namely the failed December terrorist attack in the USA on a flight from Amsterdam - "have reminded us how important it is to share information on these issues". He argued that "SWIFT has been a valuable tool" and claimed his recent meetings with US officials had assured him that sufficient safeguards and oversight were built into the interim agreement. "I urge you to support it," he said. However, Kirkhope nevertheless criticised the Council's "substandard" consultation with Parliament. 

"The whole debate has been marked by frustration and irritation of members because we had the feeling that Council created facts on the ground before involving us," said German centre-right MEP Manfred Weber.

SWIFT is a private company that handles the banking transactions of thousands of banks, including most European institutions. The company is based in Belgium but also has a branch in the USA. 

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. 

The US believes the programme allows access to data that could prove vital in tracking transactions between terrorist cells. 

However, some European political groups, notably the liberal faction in the European Parliament, have repeatedly criticised the agreement, arguing it is "not only a restraint on European sovereignty but a massive intrusion into every single European citizen's privacy".

German political parties were particularly opposed to the deal when it first appeared on the EU legislative agenda in July 2009 (EURACTIV 28/07/09).

In November 2009, European home affairs ministers made an interim agreement with the USA allowing American investigators broad access to EU banking data, overruling the European Parliament's desire to see the agreement delayed until the Lisbon Treaty had entered into force on 1 December (EURACTIV 01/12/09). 

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