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Parliamentary muscle

February 11, 2010

The deal to allow US authorities continued access to international financial transaction data could be crushed under the weight of a newly strengthened European Parliament.

two hands hold up a European Union flag from underneath
Will the European Parliament hold up the deal?Image: AP

The European Parliament is expected to vote Thursday on whether to continue a nine-month interim agreement that allows US authorities to access financial transaction data from SWIFT, an international banking transfer system.

Cecilia Malmstroem, newly appointed EU Home Affairs Commissioner, appealed to members of parliament on Wednesday to approve the deal.

"The interim agreement is not a favor to the United States; it is in our common interest," Malmstroem said in Strasbourg. "If the interim agreement fails, it is likely to take considerable time before any alternative can be put into place. So refusal of consent risks to lead to both a data protection gap and a security gap."

But opponents say the agreement sets a dangerous precedent.

"We need to fight terrorism and its causes but not at the price of fundamental rights, if you give up these democratic rights then why fight terrorism?" said the head of the far-left GUE/NGL bloc, Lothar Bisky, on Wednesday.

Lothar Bisky
Lothar Bisky feels personal liberty is at riskImage: picture-alliance / dpa

Show of strength

A "no" vote could be a sign of the increased political muscle bestowed upon the parliament by the Lisbon Treaty. The body's civil liberties committee has already recommended that lawmakers reject the deal.

"Some very basic principles are being violated under the current conditions of the agreement, like the principles of proportionality, and also necessity," Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, a Liberal EU parliament member who authored the civil liberties committee report, told Deutsche Welle. "And on top of that we also have the problem of not having access to all the relevant documents and information, so it's very difficult for us to give our consent."

On Tuesday, Hennis-Plasschaert told German news agency dpa that a "yes" vote was improbable, "but if the [European] Council comes forward with some proposals, a postponement [of the vote] might be considered." But the next day, she said postponement would be tantamount to a "yes."

Access to consumer data

The US wants to be able to continue screening bank transaction data gathered by SWIFT as a way of tracking terrorism suspects.

SWIFT logo
The US says SWIFT data is an important tool in finding information about terror suspects' activitiesImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

SWIFT, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, facilitates trillions of dollars in financial transactions across the world each day.

Until recently, some of its servers were located on US soil, giving American authorities the jurisdiction needed to access the information on them. But at the end of 2009, the servers were moved to Europe.

Final decision

A temporary agreement was ratified by EU member countries in November - just one day before the Parliament would have taken on its additional Lisbon powers.

Supporters of the agreement say that the data is essential to preventing future terrorist attacks. Its detractors, which include the majority of the parliament's center-left coalition, say there aren't enough safeguards to protect the privacy of EU residents, and that it leaves them out of the decision-making process.

The Interior Minister of Spain, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, has been advocating a postponement of the vote.

However, Spanish parlimentarians from the center-left coalition were expected to break ranks with their counterparts and vote to approve the deal. But the outcome was anything but predictable the night before the expected vote.

Editor: Rob Turner