EU wins concessions on US bank data-sharing deal

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The European Parliament yesterday (24 June) clinched approval for greater EU oversight of US investigations into the financial activity of terror suspects within Europe.

Two parliamentary groups, the Socialists and the Liberals, said on Thursday they would back the agreement, after vetoing a previous version in February due to concerns about insufficient privacy safeguards.

The Parliament's dominant centre-right European People's Party (EPP) group also backs the agreement. 

Under the agreement, struck between the US Treasury, EU member states and the European Parliament, 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, MEPs said.

A US Treasury Official was reported to have met with the Commission on Wednesday to agree on the details, but did not meet with parliamentarians.

The socialist (Socialists & Democrats) and EPP groups in the European Parliament claim they have managed to open up negotiations that were deemed shut by EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström last week.

"We have a highly desirable deal for European citizens," said Claude Moraes, a socialist member of the European Parliament from the UK.

Caving in?

The agreement has been heralded as a great win by the S&D and EPP camps, but the Greens have accused the two groups of caving into an agreement they still view as unacceptable.

The Greens say yesterday's agreement damages the EU's negotiating position with the US on data protection, a review of which is due to begin in the autumn.

Their complaint stems from bulk data transfers, which would still be possible once the agreement is back on its feet.

Ideally, the Parliament would want to replace bulk data with targeted searches carried out by an EU-based authority to prevent Treasury officials from poring over swathes of citizens' private data.

"We cannot reduce the problem of bulk data for the moment as we do not have the technical capability," Birgit Sippel, a German S&D MEP, told EURACTIV.

As part of the agreement, the European Commission has been asked to write a framework for the extraction of data on US soil with a view to setting up an EU equivalent to the American Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme.

If after five years an EU equivalent is not in place, the Commission will either have to renegotiate or terminate the agreement, German liberal MEP Alexander Alvaro told EURACTIV.

A spokesperson from the US Mission to the EU was unavailable for comment.

"We [...] urge the Council to set a clear, sound and binding deadline for putting in place a European system for extracting data on EU soil and avoiding the transfer of bulk data," said Claude Moraes, a British Labour MEP.

"This is the first time ever that an agreement with the US, already initialled, has been reopened. The credit for this goes to the pressure mounted by the European Parliament," he added.

MEP Alex Alvaro from the German liberal FDP party, chief negotiator for the European Parliament on the agreement, declared: "Parliament has 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."

"We didn't want EU personnel to be merely present at the operations. We wanted and we have finally obtained that they will be on an equal footing with US officials and directly involved in the oversight on the use of data. This is a major success for European people and for our Group, too," German Socialist MEP Birgit Sippel said in a statement. 

In opposition to the majority of other groups' positions, Green MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht said: "The majority of the Parliament is giving away any possibility to sustain the pressure on Council, Commission and US government to solve the problem of bulk transfers of data on completely unsuspicious persons, which by many experts is understood as a breach of European fundamental law."

Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the ALDE Group, added: "This agreement is certainly an improvement compared to the interim agreement rejected by a large majority of Parliament in February, led by the ALDE group. However Parliament still had a number of concerns regarding the transfer of bulk data and over the need to review the provisions after a few years."

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 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).

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecila Malmström presented the Parliament with a revised version of the agreement in early June 2010.

MEPs told EURACTIV that the mood in the Parliament's civil liberties committee (LIBE), which received the commissioner's presentation, was one of disappointment and pointed towards a likely rejection of the agreement (EURACTIV 10/06/10).

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