Yes to SWIFT unlikely as vote in limbo

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A debate in the European Parliament last night cast a cloud of uncertainty over a vote scheduled today (11 February) on an agreement between the EU and the US on the transfer of citizens' financial data to prevent terrorist attacks.

MEPs close to the negotiations told EURACTIV that after a tense debate with the European Council and the European Commission, the Council began trying to hash out a compromise in the small hours of 10 February to satisfy MEPs' concerns on bulk data transfers and legal redress.

On Wednesday, the Council also issued a statement saying it would try to meet MEPs' concerns ahead of today's plenary vote.

Likely delay of vote

A new Council line would postpone the vote indefinitely. Today's vote "is likely to be a vote on a deferral of the vote," according to one MEP.

If the vote goes ahead and MEPs vote 'no', the interim SWIFT agreement between the EU and the US would be in limbo, the only silver lining being that bulk transfers of data would no longer be possible, say MEPs.

A large majority of MEPs have already made clear they will be voting 'no' if there is a vote on SWIFT today.

It's common knowledge, say MEPs, that all political groups except the conservative European People's Party (EPP) are firmly opposed to the agreement that would see the EU "flout its own laws on fundamental rights," according to the Parliament's rapporteur for the agreement, Jeanine Hennis-Plaesschaert from the Alliance of Liberal Democrats for Europe (ALDE).

Plasschaert said she was disappointed that the EU "continues to outsource its security services to the United States without any reciprocity".

During yesterday's debate it emerged that MEPs are opposed to many aspects of the interim agreement including the USA's ability to request large swathes of data from the SWIFT database and that such data, under US law, can be held for up to ninety years.

In addition, under the agreement, EU citizens would not have a legal right to redress on US soil, according to Plaesschaert.

The European Parliament has previously been unable to put such pressure on the Council but the Lisbon Treaty, which came into force last December, affords MEPs more say on international agreements.

Security gap?

However, the Council maintains that a 'no' vote would create a worrying security gap and that would-be terrorists would have a window to go undetected by authorities.

"In the absence of such short-term agreement, an important security gap would arise in which there would be a risk of losing the benefit of important leads obtained through the Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme," read a statement from the Council on Wednesday.

MEPs warned the Council not to try and score points by scaremongering.

A large majority say there is no security gap given the existence of a Mutual Legal Assistance Agreement between the EU and the US.

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.

  • February: European Commission to adopt draft negotiation guidelines for SWIFT.

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