MEPs to restrict US access to anti-terror data

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The European Parliament wants to see plans for an EU-based financial data authority before striking a new EU-US financial data sharing deal to combat terrorism, according to members of the legislature's justice committee, LIBE.

This will be the gist of a vote today (5 May) on the opening of negotiations between the European Commission and the US Treasury Department on sharing financial data to prevent and combat terrorism, the so-called SWIFT agreement.

"We want the Council of Ministers and the European Commission to follow up on the twintrack approach which I myself wrote into the [SWIFT] resolution," the Parliament's rapporteur on SWIFT, Dutch MEP Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert (ALDE), told EURACTIV ahead of today's vote.

Plasschaert explained that the European Parliament will seek both to limit the scope of data transfers to the US Treasury department and to establish an EU-based authority to extract "targeted data" as soon as possible.

"As long as we do not have our own capacity on EU soil, then there is no reciprocity," the MEP added.

"We want an EU mechanism for data extraction on specific suspects, not data mining" Greek MEP Stavros Lambrinidis (S&D), a member of the LIBE committee and vice-president of the Parliament, said ahead of the vote.

Parliament flexes new muscles in Washington

MEPs toppled the EU-US interim agreement on financial data sharing in February after the EU's Lisbon Treaty gave them the power to veto international agreements (EURACTIV 11/02/10).

In an unprecedented move last week, MEPs crossed the Atlantic to speak to their US counterparts in Congress and the Treasury Department on outstanding concerns like bulk transfers of data and the rights of EU citizens on US soil (EURACTIV 29/04/10).

The MEP's visit signals an about-turn in transatlantic relations, as the US Congress appears to be taking the European Parliament's renewed strength very seriously.

"We can say 'yes' or 'no' to a new agreement but US Congress cannot," Plasschaert added.

On a three day trip, MEPs from the LIBE committee also spoke to the head of the US Treasury, Timothy Geithner and the US Attorney General, Eric Holder.

Washington signals co-operation

"The appearance of co-operation from the US side was pleasantly surprising," said Lambrinidis, who also attended meetings in Washington.

In addition, and at the European Parliament's behest, US Chief Privacy Officer Nancy C. Libin is reportedly drafting an overview on the differences in EU and US law on matters of legal redress, data protection, privacy and compensation.

Though she also found the visit constructive, Plasschaert admitted it was difficult to gauge how much room for manoeuvre MEPs would have on unresolved issues.

One such issue is how long the US Treasury can retain the financial data of EU citizens.

The current draft agreement allows the US authorities to store unused data for five years, a period MEPs are currently trying to pare down.

"Bulk data [transfers] will need to be maintained for technical and efficiency reasons," said Spanish Presidency representative Diego López Garrido at a hearing in April 2010.

Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said, "I know this [bulk data] is a great concern for the European Parliament, but without it there would be no TFTP (Terrorism Finance Tracking Programme)".

"Should the EU develop something similar to the TFTP, US authorities are willing to help us," she added.

"The European Parliament wants an agreement, but not an agreement at any cost," said MEP Simon Busuttil (Malta), speaking on behalf of the European People's Party group.

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".

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