Interview: ‘We can’t trust Americans blindfolded’

An agreement was reached on 6 October 2006 about supplying information on transatlantic airline passengers to US authorities. Dutch MEP and Rapporteur Sophie in ´t Veld, speaking exclusively to EURACTIV, says the deal offers EU citizens no safeguards or redress if they are falsely accused.

An agreement has been reached on the Passenger Name Records (PNR). Your reaction?

The Americans will continue to have direct access to the reservation system, however they have promised to switch to a system whereby the airlines ‘forward’ the data. I have to say that the Americans promised this back in 2003 as well; it is technically possible, so there is no reason why they haven’t implemented it so far. So, that’s unfortunate.

So, you’re not happy then?

Well, let’s say that I’m happy at least that there is an agreement, because no agreement would have plunged us into chaos and would have left citizens completely unprotected. However, it’s obvious that this deal is even weaker than the previous one, and the European Parliament was never happy with that one from the start, so, happy is not the word. I hope that the Americans will actually respect the agreement, because so far they have a fairly patchy record in implementing their so-called undertakings or promises.

Could you outline the central issues for people travelling between the EU and the US? What implications do you think that this agreement will have? 

Like the previous agreement, the Passenger Name Records will be accessible to the Americans, but from the start the European Parliament said that there was no adequate protection of EU citizens’ rights. The trouble has been all along that in cases of abuse, or mistakes, there’s hardly any means of legal redress for EU citizens, because US data-protection laws do not cover them. 

Whereas, for example, we had a similar agreement with Canada, which has simply extended the data-protection laws that apply to their citizens to EU citizens entering Canada. I think that is elementary in a democracy: if we say ‘OK, we give up some freedom and some privacy with a view to greater security’, then, as a counter-weight to that, the position of the citizen vis-à-vis the public authority should be strengthened – there should always be safeguards against abuse and mistakes.

Would you say that the US’ actions in this regard are simply the result of wrong-headedness, or are they are deliberately abusing the system? If so, why? It seems obvious, for example, that a very good reason for ever-tighter security is that people don’t want to be blown up in mid-air? 

Some people pretend that the European Parliament is opposed to the principle of data-sharing; that is simply not true, we are as concerned about the security of our citizens as anybody else, and we’ve had to remind the Americans several times that there have actually been more attacks on European soil than in America. So it’s not that we don’t care, but there have to be proper safeguards. You can’t just say ‘We want to know everything about our citizens but we are not bound by any rules, there’s no data-protection and there are no safeguards for citizens’. 

I’m sorry, this is a democracy, this is the 21st century, and we all know that the public authorities mean well, but people aren’t safe, people should have proper means of redress. That’s really elementary. Secondly, US authorities have really given us very little reason to trust them blindfolded. The previous PNR agreement has been, to put it mildly, implemented in a ‘less-than-satisfactory’ manner. There were all these things that the Americans promised, but the only guarantee seemed to be ‘Scout’s honour’!. 

The Americans have not lived up to their promises, that’s very obvious; for example, there was the issue of ‘purpose limitation’. The agreement’s undertakings state that passenger data can only be used for the fight against terrorism and related crime. However, in reality it turns out that it is being used for other purposes. 

There’s also the case of SWIFT [bank-transfer data]. Why do we have to find out five years into the war against terror that our bank accounts are being monitored, why didn’t anybody tell us about this? 

Is this the way that allies behave? Spying on each other in secret? The CIA flights, the rendition flights, secret detention camps, these don’t really inspire much confidence, either. I’m sorry, but it creates an image of American authorities who feel that they are above the law. And this is not anti-Americanism, because, let’s face it, opposition is growing within the US as well. 

It’s been suggested by a number of media commentators that the US has to a large extent squandered the worldwide goodwill that existed in the wake of 9/11. Do you agree, and is it also fair to say that the EU is increasingly resembling a US ‘poodle’, with America forcing policy implementation? 

Absolutely. Both statements are true. The US is squandering the goodwill that they had. I am very sorry about that, because I passionately believe that we should be allies and we should be sharing the same values, but it is increasingly difficult. 

The second statement is true, because this is a European problem, because we do not have a proper Community policy in this area, we are divided, so the US determines the conditions of the fight against terrorism, and all we can do, the only reply that we have, is to simply provide a legal base for American policy. 

Now I think that is wrong –in the end, we may have a political debate and agree that these are good or bad policies, but that’s beside the point. What’s important here is that we do not have our own policies in Europe, and for what we do have there is no parliamentary scrutiny. This agreement will now be put before national parliaments, but how many do you think will have the guts to say ‘No, this leaves citizens unprotected, it leaves the airlines in legal limbo’? They can’t say ‘No’ anymore, and the European Parliament has not been involved. 

This is a very undesirable situation, and it’s not just about PNR. We do not speak with one voice, but national governments are selling their electorate the illusion of national sovereignty. Give me a break! Terrorism is a worldwide phenomenon, but we see today that policies are not made in national capitals, nor are they made in Brussels, they are made in Washington. 

That is the actual situation, so I think that government leaders should open their eyes to reality, recognise that the only way that we as Europeans can have a voice in this whole process and the only way that we can fight terrorists on their own conditions is by having common policy.

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