EU, US re-assess SWIFT data-sharing deal


Socialist MEPs today (18 March) returned from two days of talks with high-level US officials, including Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, to explore grounds for a compromise on the SWIFT data-sharing agreement, after an interim deal was blocked by the European Parliament last month. 

Bulk data transfers and equivalent EU scrutiny of the data being transferred were key issues discussed by the two sides, UK Labour MEP Claude Moraes told EURACTIV after the talks.

"It's important that we talk directly to the Americans as we need to get a sense of what they are willing to do," Moraes said.

Bulk data retention

"We still have concerns that the issue of bulk data will not be addressed properly, even by the European Commission," the Socialist & Democrats (S&D) MEP said.

Under current rules, the US can retain a bulk amount of data for up to ninety years, though the US authorities tried to reassure MEPs that any untouched data is deleted after five years.

EU data scrutiny

In addition, SWIFT in Belgium told EURACTIV that its US operations have a team of so-called "scrutineers" who have security clearance from the US Treasury to verify that requested data is part of an ongoing anti-terror investigation.

The spokesperson confirmed that there is no such equivalent team of experts in the EU, which is a cause of concern for the Parliament.

Moraes said the MEPs and the US authorities discussed establishing a new body, like the EU's Europol, to provide the same level of scrutiny in Europe, be it for data accessed on US or on EU soil.

US recognises Parliament's new strength

Moraes said he was impressed by Steinberg's knowledge of the Lisbon Treaty and the increased importance of the European Parliament under the text.

He said the American understood that the vote of the S&D group in the legislature would pivotal to securing an agreement on SWIFT.

On a two-day trip, MEPs visited officials at the US Treasury, the State Department, the Department for Homeland Security and the Department of Justice.

Commission negotiations re-launched

Meanwhile, on 24 March the European Commission will likely give two commissioners a mandate to negotiate with the US on the collapsed deal.

The commissioners, Viviane Reding and Cecilia Malmström, will still need the approval of the EU's member states and the Parliament to begin their talks a few months down the road.

"The Commission will want to ensure that any deal with the US represents the Parliament's wishes," a spokesperson for Reding told EURACTIV.

'Targeted' SWIFT searches ongoing

Since the Parliament's 'no' to SWIFT, a spokesperson for the outfit insisted that transfer of data from the Dutch and Swiss servers to the US Treasury had ceased.

However, according to Moraes, targeted searches are still possible as part of a bilateral agreement with Belgium, the country where SWIFT is legally based.

In addition, servers on US soil which store EU banking data are still accessible with a mandatory subpoena from the US government, a spokesperson for SWIFT said.

Servers based in Virginia hold all transactions flowing between the two continents and also hold all dollar payments made inside the EU, the spokesperson explained.  

The US could also negotiate bilaterally with the Swiss and Dutch governments on access to SWIFT data on their servers if an EU deal were to collapse, a spokesperson for the Commission said at a conference in February.

"We made it absolutely clear that whilst such an agreement can serve valid US security interests in the fight against terrorism, it would be unthinkable unless it respects EU citizens' basic data-protection rights and these rights can be enforced. In this context we mentioned the constitutions of our member states, the EU charter of fundamental rights and recent rulings made by the German constitutional court," said Socialist & Democrats leader Martin Schulz after the talks.

"We can't just go and fish around for any data," a spokesperson for SWIFT said, explaining the company's security clearance procedure.

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.

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".

  • 24 March: College of Commissioners to vote on the executive's new mandate for SWIFT negotiations.

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