Parliament to back new EU-US data-sharing deal

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The European Parliament is tomorrow (8 July) expected to rubber-stamp a revised EU-US agreement on bank data-sharing, called 'SWIFT', that is set to give significant new powers of oversight to US anti-terror investigators. Some MEPs feel, however, that the ongoing saga represents "misuse" of parliamentary power.

The vote, expected to be carried by a large majority, will draw to a close one of the most heated debates of 2010.

The new deal, struck earlier this week (5 July), was backed by a clear majority of MEPs on the Parliament's justice and home affairs committee, who said earlier concerns over the protection of citizens' privacy had been met.

An earlier version of the agreement had been rejected by MEPs in February, forcing EU countries and the European Commission to renegotiate a deal with the US authorities (see 'Background').

The only major parliamentary group still opposing the new deal are the European Greens, who made a last-ditch attempt to sway their fellow MEPs yesterday (6 July).

German Green Jan Philipp Albrecht called on MEPs to hold out for a better deal, arguing that the new agreement – despite its concessions – was "premature" and would make it "difficult to anchor a high level of fundamental rights at the international level".

"The EU now seems to be satisfied with the low level of protection in US law, in which legal protection by independent judges is replaced by the will of the administration, and ubiquitous surveillance is preferred to individual judicial decisions," he claimed.

Under the new agreement, so-called "scrutineers" appointed by the European Union will become part of the US Treasury's operations that examine the financial transactions of terror suspects. In the medium term, this new commitment will "guarantee the end of non-individualised transfers of data to the US authorities," said German centre-right MEP Alexander Alvaro, the Parliament's rapporteur on this complex brief.

Parliament sources speaking on condition of anonymity told EURACTIV that Alvaro was right to be pleased, given that the Parliament had won "huge concessions" from the US.

What happens next?

The European Socialists, having been among those pushing hardest for a revised agreement, hailed the new deal as a success. Greek Socialist MEP Stavros Lambrinidis said that "instead of the 'swift' SWIFT agreement they were aiming for, the involvement of Parliament forced the Commission and the US Administration to negotiate a 'good' SWIFT agreement".

The new agreement, while not perfect, "brought a new – and much needed – spirit of openness and cooperation in the American Administration's relations with the EU," he argued.

However, the Greek MEP cautioned that while the new agreement strikes a better balance for the EU, what happens next is also crucial.

Under the deal, European police agency Europol will be responsible for interacting with US authorities requesting EU banking data. Lambrinidis believes that Europol is ill-equipped to do this task alone and will require additional legal experts to protect the EU interest.

"Europol is hardly the ideal EU body to conduct the initial review of US data requests," he argued, adding: "I therefore hope that Commission can devise a way to station in Europol a representative of the European Data Protection Supervisor to oversee those initial bulk data grants, just as we have succeeded in stationing an EU overseer in the Treasury."

Misuse of new parliament powers?

In the broader context of EU power politics, opinions are divided as to whether the Parliament acted shrewdly or foolishly in so muscularly brandishing its new Lisbon Treaty powers of approval over international agreements.

Lambrinidis neatly explained the socialist line on this debate when he argued that the debacle "demonstrated that Parliament is a serious interlocutor that can exercise its new powers responsibly and effectively".

However, the European Conservative Group (ECR), which is dominated by the strongly pro-Atlantic UK Conservative party and supported the original SWIFT deal, believes the Parliament exercised power for power's sake.

An ECR source told EURACTIV that the Parliament "misused its new Lisbon powers," adding that it was "unfortunate that the US got caught up in this new experiment".

The US has from the start approached the debate with a great degree of goodwill, and the Parliament has not responded in kind, they argued.

However, the ECR spokesman on civil liberties, UK MEP Timothy Kirkhope, nonetheless backed the revised deal, arguing that while it is "not perfect, we do not live in a perfect world".

Centre-right MEPs Manfred Weber (Germany) and Ernst Strasser (Austria) argued that their group, the European People's Party (EPP) "firmly supports this new Agreement following the changes introduced in order to guarantee higher standards of data protection, including a thorough European oversight of data extraction on US soil".

"Negotiations were reopened to take Parliament's final demands into account, such as the request for a binding twin-track approach to establish a European Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme (TFTP) at the earliest," they said. 

Speaking in Strasbourg ahead of Thursday's vote, European Conservative Group (ECR) spokesman on civil liberties, UK MEP Timothy Kirkhope, told MEPs who still opposed the agreement that while "the agreement is not perfect [...] we do not live in a perfect world; that is exactly why it is needed. It is why we do not just have a duty to protect the data and rights of our citizens, which we have achieved, but also to protect their security and their safety".  

He argued that the new deal "has achieved a great deal compared with last time, including judicial review, EU oversight, review procedures and blocking mechanisms, and presents us with the future possibility of our own EU TFTP system. This agreement is undoubtedly more equal, more open, and more democratic".

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), of which the forces of the centre-left were the main blockers.

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecila Malmström presented the Parliament with a revised version of the agreement in early June 2010.

MEPs told EURACTIV that the mood in the Parliament's civil liberties committee (LIBE), which received the commissioner's presentation, was one of disappointment and pointed towards a likely rejection of the agreement (EURACTIV 10/06/10).

However, following further shuttle diplomacy between the Commission, Parliament and US authorities, a new deal was put on the table which gave greater concessions to the EU, a deal which was hailed as a "great win" by the main Parliament groupings (EURACTIV 25/06/10).

  • 8 July 2010: European Parliament plenary vote on new SWIFT agreement

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