EU to launch anti-terror finance tracking plan

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To resolve the internal strife in Brussels on sharing financial data with the US, the European Commission yesterday announced (24 March) it would seek to create an EU 'Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme' (TFTP), based on the one in the USA, which was created after the 9/11 attacks.

The TFTP would be part of upcoming negotiations between the European Commission and the US administration to resurrect the interim SWIFT agreement on sharing financial data, which was blocked by the European Parliament in February.

The collapsed SWIFT agreement will likely be negotiated by EU Commissioners Cecilia Malmström and Viviane Reding if the 27 member states' leaders and the European Parliament agree that the two are the right people for the job.

A summit of EU leaders on 22 April is expected to discuss the appointment of the two commissioners as chief EU negotiators on SWIFT.

The agreement was blocked by MEPs in February who, by a large majority, argued that it gave the US authorities too much wiggle room to play around with large swathes of EU citizens' financial data (EURACTIV 11/02/10).

A TFTP appears to be the long-term goal of the Commission, which says it would give them more autonomy over financial data tracking and anti-terror investigations.

"An EU TFTP could mean that the EU will  not have to send data to third countries, that it can conduct its own investigations, that it can share its analysis with the US and that we can work more as partners," a Commission source told EURACTIV.

Though the European Parliament has largely pushed for an EU equivalent of the USA's anti-terror programme, MEPs are very sceptical that member states would relinquish authority on such a sensitive matter to the EU.

Reding and Malmström said they would like to clinch an agreement on SWIFT by June but that the timing of the EU's TFTP would be subject to talks with the US.

The TFTP will require new EU legislation, which will have to be cleared by member states and MEPs.

In addition, financial cost, human resources and where data would be stored, among others, would also figure in the EU executive's proposal.

New SWIFT terms

As part of the Commission's new mandate on SWIFT, it will seek to ensure that EU citizens have the same legal rights as their US counterparts on American soil, that financial data is not passed to third parties and that data requests are scrutinised by an EU judicial body.

This could be done by Europol – the European Law Enforcement Organisation – whose headquarters are in the Dutch capital, The Hague, or a new authority, an EU source added.

In the interim SWIFT agreement, both parties wanted the EU's judicial authority to sit in the Netherlands as the SWIFT servers were located there.

On bulk data – the European Parliament's main concern in the interim agreement –  Malmström said she would try and limit the scope of bulk data requests to anti-terror investigations only.

Such limits could make sure that requests for data are more specific and limited to all transactions in a certain location, by a certain nationality, in certain banks or within a certain time-frame, as well as supported by evidence, an EU source explained.

"The benefit of an agreement granting US anti-terrorism authorities access to European bank data isn’t clear to me, no matter how many sweeteners in terms of small data protection provisions are added" says Cornelia Ernst, German GUE/NGL MEP on the European Parliament's civil liberties committee.

"Whilst the proposals will need to be closely examined in committee, I am encouraged by the inclusion of greater transparency, effective rights to redress and rectification, a review mechanism, judicial approval of data requests, limitations on scope and length of data storage, prohibition of data forwarding to third countries and references to reciprocity whereby the EU would develop its own terrorist finance tracking system rather than outsourcing intelligence gathering to the US," read a statement from Dutch liberal MEP and SWIFT rapporteur, Jeanine Hennis Plasschaert.

"We made it absolutely clear that whilst such an agreement can serve valid US security interests in the fight against terrorism, it would be unthinkable unless it respects EU citizens' basic data protection rights and these rights can be enforced. In this context we mentioned the constitutions of our member states, the EU charter of fundamental rights and recent rulings made by the German constitutional court," said Socialist & Democrats leader Martin Schulz.

Green MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht said: "I welcome that the new EU Commission negotiation mandate has at last explicitly recognised that Parliament has a role to play in the decision on SWIFT data transfers. The exact substance of the new mandate is however unclear and basic ground rules are missing. There is no clear commitment to ensure that only essential data is provided."

Centre-right European People's Party (EPP) Group Vice-Chairman Manfred Weber, Simon Busuttil, the group's coordinator in the civil liberties committee, and SWIFT shadow rapporteur Ernst Strasser stressed that though the European Commission was on the right track, they request "clear and strict provisions on storing the data, on deleting unused data and an evaluation process after the first few years".

"Naturally, the EU also needs to be able to obtain information from the US database," the EPP's statement added.

 

 


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".

  • 22 April: EU leaders to decide whether Malmström and Reding can negotiate with US.
  • 24 May: US and EU meet to discuss bilateral relations, including SWIFT.

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