Parliament to launch enquiry into US eavesdropping

L'assemblée plénière du Parlement européen © Parlement européen

The European Parliament on Thursday (4 July) plans to establish a special committee to investigate reports that an American spy agency monitored phone calls and e-mails of EU institutions and some member states. But some MEPs sought to downplay pressure to freeze EU-US trade negotiations over the spying allegations. EURACTIV reports from Strasbourg.

The special panel will be established within the European Parliament's Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) and is to deliver a report by the end of the year.

It will formulate proposals on adequate redress measures in case of confirmed violations and put forward recommendations to prevent that similar espionage events happen in the future, EURACTIV has learned.

In a joint motion for resolution, MEPs will also call for mixed parliamentary and judicial control over intelligence services, as already exists in some EU countries.

Reding says US is 'taking our concerns seriously'

EURACTIV learned today (3 July) that the European Commission will report to the European Parliament and Council in October this year to discuss the findings of an expert group, which has been set up by the EU and the US following dialogue between Viviane Reding, the commissioner for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship, and US Attorney-general Eric Holder.

"The US appears to take our concerns regarding PRISM seriously," Reding told EURACTIV, referring to the US eavesdropping programme.

"Eric Holder committed, in a letter to me, to set up the expert group immediately to assess the matter in detail. We spoke yesterday evening (2 July) on the phone and the group will have its first meeting this month, and a second one in Washington in September."

Reding had previously complained in an interview with EURACTIV that the US had failed to answer in writing to her requests for clarification regarding the spying allegations.

>> Read: Reding: 'I am still awaiting a written response' over US, UK spying allegations

In the European Parliament yesterday, many MEPs expressed alarm over the PRISM operation in the United States. The assembly will hold a debate today (3 July) and question the European Commission further about its latest talks with the US administration and the measures it intends to take.

Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Parliament's liberal ALDE group, called for an immediate response from Washington "not behind closed doors, but in the European Parliament," echoing many MEPs’ insistence that the United States had crossed a line.

‘Freezing trade negotiations is stupid’

But many MEPs, however, tried to soothe tensions with Washington and played down calls by the Greens and Socialists who want to suspend the trade negotiations, which are due to start this month in Washington (8 July).

>> Read: MEPs call for freezing EU-US trade talks over spying allegations

Speaking to the press, German MEP Manfred Weber, vice chairman of the European People’s Party (EPP), said the EU should not sideline strategic interests and warned against taking hasty decisions on suspending EU-US trade talks.

“We need growth and we need jobs. That is a strategic interest for us. This agreement [Transatlantic trade and investment partnership or TTIP] can be a way to combat unemployment,” he said.

“What has happened, has happened we cannot come to rushed conclusions, but I think we need to be firm in our dealing with the Americans on this,” he added in reference to EU rules on privacy and data protection, which are stricter in Europe than in the US.

The European Commission also said yesterday the spy scandal should not affect the EU-US trade negotiations.

In what appeared like a climb-down on previous comments, Verhofstadt explained that parts of the EU-US negotiations could be frozen, citing those on data protection and data transfers, but not the whole agreement.

“There are a number of files that we can hold on, but you don’t hold on something that we want. That is a bit of a stupid idea,” Verhofstadt said.

According to the joint motion for resolution, seen by EURACTIV, the European Commission should ensure that EU data protection standards and the negotiations in the current EU data protection package are not undermined trade agreement with the US.

MEPs will also ask for a full review of the Safe Harbour agreement, established in 2000 between the US Department of Commerce and the EU  to regulate the way that US companies handle  personal data of European citizens.

Data protection cooperation

Over the weekend, the Greens in the European Parliament asked for the EU to cancel agreements with the US related to exchanges of banking data (Swift) and airplane passenger name records (PNR) for counter-terrorism purposes.

“Before starting negotiations on a future trade agreement (TTIP) with the US, we need a debate about the infringement of international law by PRISM and Tempora. The last few days have shown how urgently we need an international agreement on data protection,” said Rebecca Harms, co-president of the Greens/EFA group.

Asked by EURACTIV whether the European institutions should take immediate precautionary measures to protect themselves from foreign espionage, Verhofstadt said a number of countermeasures are surely necessary and it’s up to European Commission to come forward with a plan. However, he insisted, Europol’s new unit on cybercrime will need to do its own work both in investigating the content of the alleged revelations and countermeasures.

The United States has allegedly bugged European Union offices and gained access to EU internal computer networks, according to secret documents cited in the German weekly Der Spiegel on Saturday, the latest in a series of exposures of alleged US spy programmes.

The Justus Lipsius building in Brussels and the EU delegation in Washington were among the “targets” of US wiretapping, according to the documents obtained by the magazine.

Der Spiegel quoted from a September 2010 "top secret" US National Security Agency document that it said fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden had taken with him, and the weekly's journalists had seen in part.

The European Commission issued a statement on Tuesday (2 July) reiterating its "strong concerns" over the allegations of US intelligence activities targeting EU institutions and Member States and stating "the urgency of a clarification by the US".

The EU Executive however tried playing down the tension and salvaging trade talks with Washington, which are due to be launched on 8 July.

"The College considered that whilst the beginning of EU/US trade negotiation should not be affected, the EU side will make it clear that for such a comprehensive and ambitious negotiation to succeed, there needs to be confidence, transparency and clarity among the negotiating partners."

Dalia Grybauskait?, the president of Lithuania, which is currently holding the EU's six-month rotating presidency, issued a similar statement. "With no doubt, the European Union is concerned," she said. "The American side has been asked to provide additional information in response to those media reports. We expect answers, and I believe we'll find common solutions."

But she also sought to dissociate the spying scandal from the EU-US trade talks, saying the two are separate issues.

"The talks with America on a free trade agreement is a slightly separate issue. The mandate and decision on the launch of the talks have already been done. It's a very long process. Based on our most optimistic estimates, the talks might take even two or more years. So these all issues should not have direct impact. We truly believe that we'll manage to find a common solution with the United States," said Grybauskait?.

"The EU-US talks on a Transatlantic Trade Agreement ought go ahead as scheduled, however. "It is also in the vital interest of the EU to reach a comprehensive trade agreement with the USA to boost growth and create jobs", said MEP Axel Voss (EPP).

Europeans have reacted angrily to revelations that US authorities had tapped the servers of internet companies for personal data, with some politicians calling for a suspension of negotiations over a transatlantic trade agreement until further clarification is provided.

>> Read: MEPs call for freezing EU-US trade talks over spying allegations

German magazine Der Spiegel reported on 29 June that the National Security Agency bugged EU offices and gained access to EU internal computer networks.

The magazine followed up on Sunday with a report that the US agency taps half a billion phone calls, emails and text messages in Germany in a typical month, much more than any other European peer and similar to the data tapped in China or Iraq.

  • July 2013: EU-US expert group on PRISM to meet in Brussels
  • September 2013: Expert group to meet in Washington
  • October 2013: European Commission to report about the findings of the EU-US expert group to the European Parliament and the Council
  • by end of 2013: European Parliament's special committee to deliver report on PRISM

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