Assertive Parliament ratifies EU-US anti-terror deal

datas_centres.jpg

After rejecting an earlier version in February, the European Parliament approved a revised EU-US bank-data sharing deal yesterday (8 July), asserting its new-found role in the EU's institutional power game under the Lisbon Treaty.

Having rejected the original SWIFT agreement negotiated by the European Commission and the US Treasury in February, MEPs approved the amended deal by 484 votes to 109.

The agreement will enter into force on 1 August 2010.

The revised EU-US agreement follows months of negotiations between Washington and Brussels in what had become a transatlantic bone of contention in the US-led war on terror.

Under the new SWIFT agreement, so-called 'scrutineers' appointed by the European Union will become part of the US Treasury's operations that examine the financial transactions of terror suspects on European territory (EURACTIV 07/07/10).

European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek welcomed the agreement but sounded a warning shot to EU member states that they had better treat the Parliament as an "equal player" in future or risk recurring stand-offs of a similar nature.

"Today's vote hopefully brings the SWIFT affair to an end," Buzek said, adding that since the Parliament's rejection of the original proposal in February, "the EU institutions have worked intensively with the US administration to strike a better balance between the competing needs of security and data protection".

According to the Parliament, the key to gaining MEPs' approval was the eventual elimination of 'bulk' data transfers to US authorities.

In exchange for backing the agreement, MEPs obtained a guarantee that work on setting up an EU equivalent to the US Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme (TFTP), which would preclude the need for bulk data transfers, will start within 12 months.

Once Europe has a system enabling it to analyse data on its own territory, it need only transfer data relating to a specific terrorist track.

Take us seriously, warns Buzek

The outcome of the SWIFT negotiations has a broader resonance for EU politics, as it proved to be the first opportunity for the European Parliament to exercise its new Lisbon Treaty powers of scrutiny over international agreements.

Some argue that the Parliament used its mandate to negotiate a better deal for EU citizens, while some believe the chamber exercised power for power's sake and "misused its new Lisbon powers" (EURACTIV 07/07/10).

Like it or lump it, you'd better pay attention to us in future, warned Buzek.

"Important institutional lessons have also been learned from this experience. Under the Lisbon Treaty, nearly all international agreements between the EU and third countries now require the European Parliament's consent," the president cautioned.

"To avoid mishaps in future, [EU member states] and the Commission must treat the European Parliament as an equal player at all stages of negotiations, keeping it fully informed and taking its views seriously into account," he added.

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström hailed the compromise, noting that getting there had "not been an easy task and has represented a test case for EU-US cooperation in the Lisbon era".

Failure to conclude a deal could have had negative repercussions for EU-US relations in security policy and more broadly, she claimed.

However, "thanks to the frank and open attitude of both negotiating parties we avoided a potential setback and transformed this challenge into a success story that I am convinced sets a very important positive precedent in the transatlantic relationship," she said.

Obama: All's well that ends well

US President Barack Obama welcomed "the decision by the Parliament to join the Council and Commission" in finding a deal.

According to the White House, the TFTP has provided critical investigative leads – and more than 1,550 for EU member states – since its creation after the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. 

The president said that "protecting privacy and civil liberties is a top priority" of his administration.

UK Treasury Commercial Secretary Lord Sassoon argued that "this agreement is a vital tool in the global effort to fight terrorism. The Tracking Programme will supply leads against those responsible for planning or committing attacks in Europe. This week's commemorations of the 2005 London attacks are a poignant reminder of the very real threat we face".

He added that "we now look forward to prompt implementation, while ensuring the protection of personal data, which improves our national security".

German Liberal MEP Alexander Alvaro, who drafted the Parliament's position and led negotiations with the other institutions, argued that the chamber had "stood up for citizens' rights to privacy by insisting that the current transfer of bulk data via SWIFT will be replaced by a properly controlled European data transfer system".

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso argued that "the active and constructive participation of all the European institutions" had led to a "very good agreement, which respects the right balance between the need to guarantee the security of citizens against the threat of terrorism and the need to guarantee their fundamental rights and civil liberties".

However, Portuguese leftist MEP Rui Tavares, whose GUE/NGL group was one of the few to oppose the new deal, said that the content of the agreement essentially remained the same and represented "a violation of the fundamental rights of innocent Europeans".

"Many privacy protection questions remain unanswered," he said, reserving particular criticism for the position in which it places Europol. Doing so was "absurd, illegal and unconstitutional," said Tavares, adding that "this agency has no role in data protection and has a clear interest in the results of any transfers".

"We will challenge this violation of citizens' rights in the courts and if declared illegal, the citizens of Europe will want to know where their elected representatives were and why they voted for an illegal deal," he said. 

Following the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the US government used the new Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme (TFTP) to force an American branch of SWIFT (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).

Following further shuttle diplomacy between the Commission, Parliament and US authorities, a new agreement was put on the table which gave greater concessions to the EU, a deal which was hailed as a "great win" by the main Parliament groups (EURACTIV 25/06/10).

  • 1 August 2010: New SWIFT agreement to enter into force.
  • 1 February 2011: Deadline for EU and US to assess how the agreement's safeguards and control systems are functioning.

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe