Parliament rejects controversial EU-US SWIFT bank data transfer agreement - La Treizième Étoile: A blog on EU politics
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Parliament rejects controversial EU-US SWIFT bank data transfer agreement

Thursday, 11 February 2010
The European Parliament has refused to give its consent to the nine-month interim agreement that would allow US authorities to access financial transaction data of European citizens in the name of the fight against terrorism, held by the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT).

SWIFTIt was thought the eventual outcome would hinge on how many MEPs voted against their party lines, such was the unpredictability reflected in the divergence of opinions across the house. But in the end it was rejected with a large majority, with 378 MEPs voting to reject the deal compared to 196 in favour of it and 31 abstaining.

The subject succeeded in establishing serious divides amongst MEPs, with some supporting it in the fight against terror, while others expressed concerns over the level of data protection in place for EU citizens and discontent at the Council for not having consulted the parliamentarians earlier in the process.

The US had in fact begun accessing SWIFT data shortly after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, but the fact that the US was secretly accessing such data did not come to light publically until 2006.

SWIFT, whose headquarters are located just outside of Brussels, records international transactions to a value of some trillions of dollars everyday made between nearly 8,000 financial institutions in more than 200 countries around the world.

It is shortly to set up a Switzerland-based back-up database, which will mean the data relating to transactions of European citizens will no longer to be stored in the US, which is why the Obama administration is negotiating a legal framework for data exchange with the EU, to enter into force next year.

The EU governments had managed to negotiated a nine-month deal which would have allowed the US to continue accessing the Swift money transfer system, but MEPs, furious that they did not have a say in this process and did not have the opportunity to which should have been afforded to them under the Lisbon Treaty, said the deal provided insufficient privacy safeguards.

The controversial deal had two-weeks previous already been defeated at the committee level, when MEPs in the civil liberties (LIBE) committee called for the agreement's rejection in today's plenary vote, with 29 votes then in favour and 23 against.

Parliament's rapporteur on the dossier, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert (ALDE, NL), while admitting the use of such bank data was necessary in the fight against terrorism, said that "the Council has not been tough enough" on the issue of protecting this data.

She continuously expressed her disappointment that EU "continues to outsource its security services to the United States without any reciprocity", and also argued that the rules on data transfer and storage provided for in the interim agreement were simply not proportionate.

Prior to the vote, Martin Schultz, the German leader of the S&D Group, said that signing this agreement "was a mistake by EU governments [who] thought they could get away with such a poor agreement, which is not in line with fundamental rights".

"How will data be retained, how will it be stored, can I have access to it, when it is going to be deleted?" he asked, alluding to whether it could be kept for up to 90 years. "This is a bad agreement that we simply cannot sign up to", he declared.

His group voted to reject the proposal, alongside the ALDE, Greens and GUE groups. However, The EPP Group, the largest in the house, tabled a resolution to postpone the vote in order to allow the Parliament, the Council and the newly installed European Commission to formulate a more concrete view on the issue. But this suggestion was voted down as MEPs sought to express the extent of their discontent.

"We have to vote down the interim agreement, not defer it", said Rebecca Harms (DE) for the Greens/EFA group prior to the vote. "We should not be agreeing to an agreement when many of us have stated again and again that this is an infringing piece of law", she urged, adding that it was "disgraceful" that the Council had failed to engage in constructive dialogue, even though US colleagues were ready to do so.

Timothy Kirkhope (ECR, UK) said he was "frustrated and angered" by the Council's treatment of Parliament. "Parliament's right to consent should not be used as a retrospective tool", he said. "We are finally getting assurances from Council and Commission" on data protection issues, "but we now need some time before proceeding further in our considerations", he added.

Today's rejection by Parliament could come as another blow in EU-US relations since it is reported that numerous US officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself, made 11th hour appeals to Parliament not to reject the agreement.

Nonetheless, President Jerzy Buzek issued a statement after the vote stating that "the majority view in the European Parliament is that the correct balance between security, on the one hand, and the protection of civil liberties and fundamental rights, on the other, has not been achieved in the text put to us by the Council."

"These are difficult, complex and sensitive matters - and by definition not everyone can be satisfied with the result."

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