Parliament set to derail EU-US anti-terror talks


A new EU-US anti-terror agreement still infringes the European Union's laws on data protection and civil liberties, say MEPs who, following talks with the European Commission today (10 June), plan to vote against the accord. 

MEPs will likely reject an EU-US agreement regulating the access of EU financial data (SWIFT), in an upcoming July vote in the European Parliament.

If confirmed, the vote will represent the second time that MEPs have put their foot down over an agreement they say would dilute EU laws on fundamental rights and data protection.

The EU's commissioner for home affairs, Cecila Malmström, today disappointed MEPs with the presentation of a revised version of the agreement to share the financial data of suspected terrorists, after the European Parliament had overwhelmingly rejected it in a February vote.

"The European Commission seems to believe it is finished with its negotiations but in substance the text is very hard for MEPs to accept," Green MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht told EURACTIV.

Although the vote is a few weeks away, Albrecht said the mood in the Parliament's civil liberties committee (LIBE), which received the commissioner's presentation today, was one of disappointment and pointed towards a likely rejection of the agreement. 

Albrecht also admitted that a parliamentary 'no' to the agreement in July would spell disaster for transatlantic relations.

Nevertheless, MEPs' principal concerns have not been addressed, he says.

The agreement still allows the US authorities to request swathes of data – bulk data – which has not been processed by a European judicial authority first, a condition MEPs have been campaigning for.

The text gives the EU's policing authority, Europol, the role of checking the data before it is transferred, but MEPs argue that the body is not a judicial authority, unlike the EU's Eurojust, whose staff would have the legal expertise to deal with sensitive data transfers.

To appeal the transfer of their data, EU citizens would also be asked to file a court case on US soil under the US Freedom of Information Act, a law MEPs say is a watered-down version of its EU equivalent.

In addition, MEPs want the agreement to include a sunset clause which would mean the accord would effectively terminate after a designated period of time.

Malmström allegedly told MEPs that she could not include major changes to satisfy their demands, but MEPs plan to pile pressure on the EU executive to change the agreement.

Row in the making on Passenger Name Records

The dispute is only one part of MEPs' discontents, as concurrent negotiations on sharing European citizens' passenger name records (PNR), including payment data and addresses, has also angered a large majority of parliamentarians.

MEPs are closely following a Belgian case whereby the Air France flight of an adviser to the European Parliament destined for Mexico in September 2009 was redirected because the crew discovered the passenger was on a US "no-fly" list.

US authorities and Janet Napolitano, the US Secretary of Homeland Security, refused to tell Paul-Emile Dupret why he had been put on a "no-fly" list but he suspects it may come from an earlier apprehension by airport security in Miami on the way back from a parliamentary mission in Nicaragua.

The US authorities questioned Dupret about several articles he had written about South American politics, even asking him if he had links to Venezuelan left-wing leader Hugo Chavez.

Dupret's case is now part of an appeal process at the Belgian constitutional court, where he is being represented by a lawyer from the Human Rights League, an NGO.

After Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström had presented the state of play in the negotiations to the European Parliament, she made a statement saying she believed the draft agreement was a substantial improvement compared to the rejected Interim Agreement.

"It takes account of the key areas that the European Parliament has raised. It addresses the issue of bulk data by ensuring that a European public authority must verify that each and every request is tailored as narrowly as possible in order to minimise the amount of data requested. It includes significant data protection provisions on rights of access, rectification, erasure and redress. It empowers the EU to undertake significant review of all aspects of the Agreement and of the TFTP, of which the Parliament will be kept fully informed," the commissioner said. 

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).

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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