MEPs say ‘no’ to SWIFT

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The European Parliament today (11 February) refused to rubber-stamp the interim SWIFT agreement between the EU and the US on the transfer of citizens' financial data to prevent terrorist attacks, dealing a blow to both EU governments and US authorities using SWIFT.

Today's 'no', with 378 MEPs voting against and 196 in favour, was a predictable outcome as the majority of parliamentarians have been campaigning against the agreement since it was struck last November (EURACTIV 04/02/10).

The event was also a demonstration of the Parliament's increased power under the Lisbon Treaty to influence international agreements. Though MEPs cannot write legislation on international agreements like SWIFT, a 'no' from the EU assembly sends legislators back to the drawing board.

The US State Department said it was disappointed at the Parliament's decision.

"This decision disrupts an important counter-terrorism program which has resulted in more than 1500 reports and numerous leads to European governmental authorities and has contributed significantly to collaborative counter-terrorism efforts between the United States and Europe," read a statement from the US.

Last night, MEPs close to the negotiations told EURACTIV that after a tense debate with European Council representatives and the European Commission, the Council began trying to hash out a compromise in the small hours to satisfy MEPs' concerns on bulk data transfers and legal redress (EURACTIV 11/02/10).

During last night's debate, MEPs lambasted the Council for agreeing to SWIFT because it did not provide legal redress for EU citizens on US soil and did not prevent the transfer of bulk data.

European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek (EPP, Poland) welcomed MEPs' rejection of SWIFT, saying "that the correct balance between security on the one hand and the protection of civil liberties and fundamental rights on the other" was not reflected in the Council text given to MEPs.

Buzek, who initially called for the deal to be suspended, cautioned on 15 January that it would be "unwise" for the Council to push through such an "inherently controversial" agreement without the Parliament's assent (EURACTIV 21/01/10).

Today's decision will ban the transfer of swathes of financial data – bulk data – but will not prevent US authorities from accessing the financial data of individuals, said MEPs, referring to the bilateral Mutual Legal Assistance Agreements between the US and the 27 member states.

The Council issued a statement to MEPs on Wednesday saying a negative outcome of the vote would create a worrying security gap where would-be terrorists could go undetected by authorities.

"In the absence of such short-term agreement, an important security gap would arise in which there would be a risk of losing the benefit of important leads obtained through the Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme," read a statement from the Council.

"It is not fair that the USA's efforts to tackle terrorist financing have become embroiled in an argument between EU institutions," said UK Conservative MEP Timothy Kirkhope on the outcome of the SWIFT vote.

European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek welcomed the decision and commented: "Despite some important progress in the last few days, the European Parliament's concerns on the use of data have not been fully met.  These are difficult, complex and sensitive matters - and by definition not everyone can be satisfied with the result. The Lisbon Treaty, agreed by 27 member-state governments, has given MEPs a right of veto over international agreements of this kind.  The same governments must accept that the European Parliament will use this power in a way which reflects its own assessment of the concerns of Europe's citizens."

Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group leader Martin Schulz agreed with Buzek, saying: "The US Administration may have wrongly thought they could deal with the European Parliament like Gulliver with the Lilliputians. Under the Swedish Presidency, European governments and the Council also made a mistake to believe it would be possible to force the European Parliament to give its consent on an unacceptable agreement based more on the US approach to security than on the EU's defence of citizens' fundamental rights."

"Today will be remembered as an important day for democracy in the EU. The EU Parliament has shown that it is capable of meeting its new responsibilities as co-legislator on domestic affairs and security matters. Parliament's rejection of the EU-US SWIFT agreement has turned the tide back towards democracy and the respect of fundamental rights in the European Union," German Green MEP Jan-Philipp Albrecht, a member of the Parliament's civil liberties committee, commented.

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.

The US believes the programme gives 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".

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

  • February: European Commission to adopt draft negotiation guidelines for SWIFT.

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