European Parliament approves SWIFT deal

(European Voice) The European Parliament today approved a EU-US deal on sharing bank data to help track terrorist financing. 

MEPs voted by 484 in favour, 109 against and 12 abstentions to back the new accord, clearing the way for it to come into force on 1 August. The deal, known as SWIFT after the private company that handles electronic banking data, sets conditions for access to international banking transfer records from EU countries by the US Treasury’s Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme (TFTP).

The agreement was renegotiated after MEPs rejected it in February, claiming it did not offer enough data protection for EU citizens. The Parliament has powers to reject any international accords the EU signs with other parties.

A reworked accord was agreed on 28 June after changes were made to how the EU oversees the work of the US Treasury in examining bank transfers made by SWIFT.

The Parliament can call for the termination of the EU-US accord after five years if such a European system is not set up by then.

While the three biggest political groups, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE), backed the accord, the Greens still had misgivings. Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German green MEP, said there were “still fundamental” problems with data protection standards offered to EU citizens in the accord. He said the time US authorities can hold onto records, five years, was still too long.

The Greens have called on the Parliament’s civil liberties committee to ask for a formal legal opinion on whether the accord violates EU data protection rules.

José Manuel Barroso, president of the Commission, welcomed the Parliament’s approval, saying that it finds “the right balance between the need to guarantee the security of citizens against the threat of terrorism and the need to guarantee their fundamental rights”.


2 Responses


    Statement by the President on the U.S.-European Union Agreement on the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program (TFTP)

    The United States welcomes today’s decision by the European Parliament to join the Council and Commission of the European Union in approving a revised agreement between the United States and the European Union on the processing and transfer of financial messaging data for the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program (TFTP). We look forward to the Council’s completion of the process, allowing the agreement to enter into force on August 1, 2010, thus fully restoring this important counterterrorism tool and resuming the sharing of investigative data that has been suspended since January 2010. The threat of terrorism faced by the United States and the European Union continues and, with this agreement, all of our citizens will be safer.

    The TFTP has provided critical investigative leads — more than 1,550 to EU Member States — since its creation after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. These leads have aided countries around the world in preventing or investigating many of the past decade’s most visible and violent terrorist attacks and attempted attacks, including Bali (2002), Madrid (2004), London (2005), the liquids bomb plot against transatlantic aircraft (2006), New York’s John F. Kennedy airport (2007), Germany (2007), Mumbai (2008), and Jakarta (2009).

    This new, legally binding agreement reflects significant additional data privacy safeguards but still retains the effectiveness and integrity of this indispensable counterterrorism program.

    Protecting privacy and civil liberties is a top priority of the Obama Administration. We are determined to protect citizens of all nations while also upholding fundamental rights, using every legitimate tool available to combat terrorism that is consistent with our laws and principles.

    The United States values the European Union’s partnership in meeting the complex challenges of this era. Putting the TFTP on this cooperative course is another example of how we can work with our European partners to prevent terrorism and simultaneously respect the rule of law. This cooperation strengthens our transatlantic ties and makes all our people safer.

  2. BRUSSELS, Jul 6, 2010 (IPS) – Private information on innocent citizens will be handed over to U.S. law enforcement authorities under an agreement slated for approval by the European Parliament this week.

    In February, members of the Parliament (MEPs) rejected a plan to allow data on everyday bank transactions be given to the U.S., citing concerns over fundamental civil rights. Four months later, however, MEPs are expected to endorse the same plan Jul. 8, having been granted a small number of concessions.

    This has its roots in a U.S. move to snoop on data held by Swift, a Belgian- based company that facilitates exchanges between banks, following the Sep. 11 atrocities. Under the pretext of tracking the “money trail” of terrorists, the Washington authorities used subpoenas to gain access to Swift’s data. Yet even though personal details on millions of individuals were transferred across the Atlantic, the public was not informed that such transfers were taking place until a report appeared in The New York Times in 2006.

    Eager to allow the transfers to continue, the European Union’s governments accepted an accord designed to give Washington the necessary legal cover in November last year. This accord drew angry response from civil liberties watchdogs, who pointed out that people whose data was abused would have no means of seeking redress. The new privacy legislation in the U.S. only offers protection against unlawful data processing to U.S. citizens and residents, not to outsiders under scrutiny by the U.S. authorities.

    The Parliament’s revolt against that accord was prompted in large measure by how MEPs felt they had been excluded from talks over the accord’s content, and by their desire to exercise new powers under the EU’s Lisbon treaty, which gives them a greater say in many policy areas. As a result, the Union’s governments and Barack Obama’s administration in the U.S. sought to address some of their concerns. A few modifications to the agreement have been made, including a provision for stationing an EU official in Washington to monitor the accord’s implementation.

    But privacy campaigners say that the core deficiencies in the agreement have not been remedied.

    “The fundamental points that were rejected by the Parliament the first time are in the text again,” Joe McNamee from European Digital Rights told IPS. “It seems that what the Parliament has been searching for is a way of backing down. The amount of data involved remains pretty much the same.”

    The data held by Swift includes the names of bank account holders and the numbers of those accounts. Because the volume of information concerned is so vast, the EU’s own Data Protection Supervisor Peter Hustinx has protested that the measures envisaged in the November accord “interfere with the private life of all Europeans.” There are no guarantees that data will no longer be stored after a certain length of time or after it has been proven to be of no benefit in an investigation, he has said.

    Alexander Alvaro, a German Liberal MEP who has been tasked with drafting the Parliament’s official response to the accord, says that he and his colleagues “have got clear concessions” since February. The EU official sent to Washington will be able to block the transfer of data if it is being abused, he claimed.

    Although his stance is being supported by a majority in the Parliament, some MEPs are continuing to voice serious misgivings. Opponents say that the agreement is illegal because it violates the right to privacy, which is enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. All EU countries are required to respect that convention.

    Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German Green, said: “Nothing has really changed. All sorts of personal data concerning innocent European citizens are still being sent to the U.S.”

    Rui Tavares, a Portuguese left-wing MEP, said European citizens will be discriminated against as a result of the agreement. “We know full well that this doesn’t change American law and that it doesn’t go through the American Congress.”

    Sophie in ‘t Veld, a Dutch Liberal MEP who specialises in civil liberties, said she was only supporting the revised accord because she did not believe it would be politically possible to hammer out a better deal. “There is no reason for jubilation but it is the least bad option,” she said, warning that the accord’s shortcoming left it vulnerable to legal challenges.

    As part of the changes to the agreement, the EU has undertaken to set up its own “terrorism finance tracking programme”, so that it can analyse bank transactions within Europe. Supporters of the accord say that this step should enable the Union to eliminate the bulk transfer of data to the U.S.

    The latest agreement also gives Europol, the EU’s police cooperation agreement, a role in its implementation. But privacy campaigners point out that Europol is not a data protection body.

    This is not the first time that the European Parliament has succumbed to pressure to approve controversial measures that the U.S. has sought as part of the “war on terror” declared by its former president George W. Bush. In 2005, for example, MEPs accepted sweeping measures to make telecommunications firms retain details of all phone calls and email messages made and sent by ordinary citizens. (END)

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