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.