Clinton calls parliament chief over bank data deal
04.02.10 @ 15:08
BRUSSELS - US secretary of state Hillary Clinton has called EU parliament chief Jerzy Buzek to voice concern over a vote due next Thursday in which MEPs could scrap a deal allowing American investigators to track down terrorist funding via European bank transactions.
Ms Clinton's late-night phonecall to Mr Buzek comes on top of other efforts by the US administration to try and convince EU lawmakers not to reject the agreement.
On Wednesday, US ambassador to Brussels William E. Kennard went to the European Parliament and held talks with several political group leaders and MEPs dealing with justice and home affairs.
The day before, Stuart Levey, the under-secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, wrote an op-ed in Europolitics warning against the "tragic mistake" of scrapping the deal.
The interim deal, which came into force provisionally on 1 February but still requires the European Parliament's approval to be legally binding, allows US authorities to tap into intra-European bank transactions as part of anti-terrorist investigations.
MEPs were infuriated when EU ministers agreed the interim deal with the US on 30 November last year, just a day before the bloc's new rulebook, the Lisbon Treaty, came into force. The treaty give euro-deputies a greater say over data protection issues.
The controversial deal was negotiated to help the US out of a legal hole, following the relocation of the US database of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (Swift) to the Netherlands on 1 January.
It will only be in force until the end of September, allowing the negotiation of a full agreement, together with the EU parliament, in the intervening time.
A majority against the deal seemed to be forming on Wednesday, when the second-largest group – the Socialists and Democrats – joined forces with the Liberals, Greens and far left to scrap the agreement.
The parliament's civil rights, justice and home affairs committee on Thursday (4 February) recommended that the plenary rejects the agreement. But parliament officials point out that this may be a "warning shot", while the final vote next week could still be positive.
The main argument of opponents to the deal was that the Parliament was sidelined in negotiations with the US authorities and the privacy guarantees for EU citizens were not satisfactory.
They also pointed out that scrapping the interim deal now would give the EU a bigger leverage for the final agreement, as currently only 60-70% of the parliament's recommendations on data protection have been taken into account.
Accepting this threshold now would give the Americans a reason not to make more concessions in the final agreement, they argue.
But supporters of the deal, especially within the parliament's biggest group – the centre-right European People's Party – point to the security gap if US authorities were to no longer receive Swift data until a final agreement is reached.
In Brussels' diplomatic circles, the parliament's muscle flexing is seen with increased concern.
"If it's voted down, the US will be extremely frustrated. It's not only about the security of Americans, it's also about the security of European citizens. The data that they send back to us is very useful in preventing terrorist attacks," one EU diplomat told this website.
Another one even called the vote a "test case for the credibility of the parliament" and warned against "playing politics with the security of our citizens."
On the diplomatic side, the rebuff would add up to increasingly cooling relations between the EU and US after a highly enthusiastic start last year upon the inauguration of President Barack Obama.
Earlier this week, the Spanish EU presidency had to cancel a planned EU-US summit after being notified that Mr Obama would not attend the meeting in Madrid.
Swift in standby mode
Meanwhile, at Swift, company officials are waiting for the parliament's final say on the interim deal.
"We have a situation where there is an agreement, but no legal basis on which Swift can be compelled to give information to US authorities," Euan Sellar, the company's spokesman told this website.
He added that there was no request yet from the US side to send any information, after the company reconfigured its data structure on 1 January.
"For us it's a good agreement, it enables us to ensure that data of our customers is protected, we know who gets the data and how it's used," Mr Sellar added.
Roughly 60 percent of the data processed by Swift is European, the rest is American and Asian.
The company records international transactions worth trillions of dollars daily, between nearly 8,000 financial institutions in over 200 countries.