The European Parliament shoots down the EU/US SWIFT agreement to protect civil liberties

, by Alessio Pisanò

The European Parliament shoots down the EU/US SWIFT agreement to protect civil liberties

The European Parliament said NO to an agreement to share bank transfer data between the EU and United States that was meant to fight terrorist financing. MEPs voted against the agreement with the US so called “SWIFT” by 378 votes to 196.

SWIFT is the name of the Belgian based financial company that handles 80% of all international financial transactions from some 208 countries. After 9/11 SWIFT information became a target for the US intelligence community in its investigation of possible terrorist financing. The US Treasury Department used its Terrorism Finance Tracking Program to obtain records and data from Swift provoking a huge furore on Europe. Last November an agreement was arranged between the EU and US, but now MEPs have knocked it back.

The official reason of this refusal is that this agreement “violates the basic principles of data protection”. In a resolution adopted on 17th September 2009, the European Parliament said that data should be gathered “only for the purpose of fighting terrorism” and “the right balance” must be kept between security measures and the protection of civil liberties. MEPs had already expressed their refusal to the agreement with US last January in a debate.

Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert (ALDE), the rapporteur of the Parliament’s report on the Swift agreement stated that “I too support a strong EU that is capable of acting shoulder to shoulder as a true counterpart to the US. The exchange and use of data for counter-terrorism purposes is and will remain necessary. But European citizens must be able to have trust in both, security and data claims. Council has been insufficiently strong on this".

European citizens must be able to have trust in both, security and data claims.

The US government said it was “disappointed” with the vote. In a statement, the US said the rejection “disrupts an important counter-terrorism programme” and marked “a setback for US-EU counter-terror co-operation". Cecilia Malmstrom, Commissioner for Home Affairs in the Barroso II Administration, called the rejection a “setback” but said the EU was determined to try to negotiate a new, similar pact with the US. High representatives of the Council and the Member states were very keen on endorsing such the agreement and prior to the vote senior figures in Washington including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had lobbied to try and persuade the Parliament to approve the deal. It goes without saying that nobody in Europe would like to disappoint the United States.

The only voice on the defence of the public interest came once again from the European Parliament. The House again felt free to set aside the European citizen’s interest in international relationships. One can not agree with the European Parliament’s resolution, but it must be admitted that it has taken into consideration the whole of Europe principles. President Jerzy Buzek said that “the correct balance between security and the protection of civil liberties and fundamental rights had not been achieved in the text put to the EP by the Council".

It now seems that the Council has other priorities rather than it’s citizens’ ones. Good relationship with the US are maybe too attractive to let national governments say “No” to their worthy ally. Only the European Parliament dares to write in a resolution that “any new agreement in this area should comply with the new legal framework established by the Treaty of Lisbon and the now binding Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union”. Indeed the Lisbon Treaty gives to the MEPs right of veto over international agreements of this kind. Now it is the time for national governments to accept that the EP will use this power. The only risk is that US trys to negotiate with national governments instead of on the EU level. We will see.

You can find more information about SWIFT at the homepage of the European Parliament.

Image: Locked away, source: t3mujin www.flickr.com

Your comments

  • On 12 March 2010 at 07:34, by Mattias Replying to: The European Parliament shoots down the EU/US SWIFT agreement to protect civil liberties

    The only risk is that US trys to negotiate with national governments instead of on the EU level. We will see.

    The national government in question is the Netherlands, and firstly, we do not have a full government here at the moment, so it would not be the easiest state to reach an agreement with, maybe after the elections in June. Further, but most important, any such deal would be in violation of the Lisbon treaty paragraphs on loyal cooperation, and such an act would undoubtedly end up in court.

    The US could however try to negotiate a deal with Switzerland. Though their bank secrecy (albeit loosened up a bit the last years or so) would make that difficult as well.

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