In what may be seen as the last EU power-play of its kind, European home affairs ministers yesterday (30 November) overruled the European Parliament’s wishes and made an interim agreement with the USA allowing American investigators broad access to EU banking data.
The agreement, approved by ministers in Brussels yesterday (30 November), ensures the United States will have continued access to European citizens’ banking data for a further nine-month period, while SWIFT moves its US databases and servers to Switzerland later this year.
Although three EU countries – Austria, Germany and Hungary – had reservations about the deal, they abstained from voting, allowing the agreement, which required unanimity, to pass.
Ahead of yesterday’s meeting, the European Parliament lobbied strongly for the agreement to be delayed until the Lisbon Treaty had entered into force on 1 December. The new treaty gives the Parliament increased powers of consultation, and would have allowed MEPs a far greater role in discussions on a new SWIFT deal.
Indeed, Parliament President Jerzy Buzek last week wrote a letter to the current head of the European Council, Swedish PM Fredrik Reinfeldt, informing him of MEPs’ reservations.
However, the Council pushed ahead, arguing that the interim agreement was a necessary step to maintain US access to European banking data.
A Council spokesperson told EURACTIV that there was a certain degree of “misinformation” coming from MEPs, given that a conclusive deal on SWIFT will require the Parliament’s consent.
“Member states had to conclude this deal yesterday because the mandate given to the Swedish Presidency was under the Nice Treaty,” he said.
The US administration hailed the deal as a “welcome step,” reiterating its belief that the TFTP has been instrumental in strengthening America’s ability to thwart terrorist attacks.
However, a number of MEPs responded angrily to the agreement, calling it inter alia an “act of ignorance” and a “black day for citizens’ rights and democracy in Europe”.
A slap in the face of democracy?
Indeed, according to the Brussels Blogger, an EU affairs blog hosted by BlogActiv, yesterday’s move was nothing less than a powerplay to ensure the European Parliament could not play a major role in the negotiations of the deal with the USA.
This was a “slap in the face of democracy in the EU,” the blog argued, adding that delaying the decision would have been the right course of action, and would have allowed MEPs to capitalise on the imminent move of SWIFT’s data server to Switzerland “to stop the nearly unlimited access of US authorities to EU bank transactions”.
Disappointed European Parliament officials, who did not wish to be named, told EURACTIV that while they regretted this “last roll of the dice” from the Council, with the Lisbon Treaty now in force such a move would no longer be possible. “Those days are over,” they concluded.