Parliament divided ahead of SWIFT vote

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The European Parliament's main political groups appear to be at odds ahead of a vote next week on the SWIFT agreement, which allows EU citizens' banking data to be transferred to US authorities as part of the fight against terrorism.

The outcome of a vote today (4 February) in the European Parliament's civil liberties committee appears uncertain, as the EU assembly's main parties have taken a conflicting stance on the issue.

The Parliament's leading faction, the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), supports the deal but a majority of socialists (S&D group) and liberals (ALDE) have expressed their opposition to it.

The full House will vote on the issue next Wednesday (10 February) and might choose not to follow the advice of the civil liberties committee.

The EPP's support came despite criticism within its own ranks over the way member states in the Council of Ministers conducted negotiations with the US authorities, only allowing MEPs to have their say after an agreement had been reached.

European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek (EPP, Poland), 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).

The warning came in an official letter addressed to Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the current EU presidency holder, and Permanent EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy.

Viviane Reding (EPP), the incoming commissioner in charge of civil liberties, expressed doubts about some aspects of the current deal. "I remain to be convinced that all these SWIFT transfers are necessary, proportionate and effective to fight terrorism," she said during celebrations of EU Data Protection Day at the end of January (EURACTIV 28/01/10).

Despite these appeals, the agreement provisionally entered into force on 1 February.

The European People's Party said it was ready to support the agreement on the basis of its content, an EPP spokesman told EURACTIV.

The EPP can count on the support of the Conservative Party (ECR) which in many occasions has called for the entry into force of the agreement, considered crucial to protecting EU citizens from the threat of global terror.

Opposition bloc against SWIFT in Parliament

However, the Socialists, Liberals, Greens and leftists in the European Parliament are against the agreement, which fails the test of necessity and proportionality, according to Claude Moraes, S&D group spokesman.

"We want a new and better deal with proper safeguards for peoples privacy. The fight against terrorism is a priority, but the EU cannot be allowed to ride roughshod over its citizens' fundamental rights," said S&D group leader Martin Schulz, expressing confidence that the deal would be rejected by the Parliament's civil liberties committee and in plenary next week.

If the four groups get the support of all their members, they can secure a majority in the assembly. However, the socialists appear internally divided on the issue, with some national delegations likely to abstain or oppose the line of their group leader.

The liberals, meanwhile, are unequivocally against the deal. "Parliament has been kept in the dark on this matter for too long. We should say 'no' to the interim agreement and ask the Council to immediately mandate the Commission to begin negotiations on a long-term agreement that is based on a solid legal foundation with all relevant data protection safeguards," said Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the ALDE group.

Legal uncertainty

If the Parliament rejects the EU-US deal, a phase of legal uncertainty will start. The interim agreement would remain in force, but without a legal base.

In this situation, SWIFT announced that it would provisionally block transfers of banking data to the US. "Until the Parliament gives a green light to the deal, we would not apply it," a spokesman for the company said yesterday (3 February).

Should the interim agreement be rejected, a new deal must be signed. All Brussels parties agree that an agreement with Washington on the matter is necessary, but the terms of any new deal would likely be different and include greater safeguards on personal data.

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).

Without the Parliament’s assent, the deal entered provisionally into force on 1 February for the duration of nine months.

  • 10 Feb. 2010: European Parliament plenary vote on SWIFT deal.

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