EU moves on data protection deal with US
27.05.10 @ 09:05
BRUSSELS - The European Commission on Wednesday (26 May) proposed an overarching data protection agreement with the US, in a bid to avoid future disagreements after the European Parliament's veto on a banking data agreement for tracking terrorism funding earlier this year.
"Fundamental rights must be protected and respected at all times. I want an EU-US agreement that protects personal data rights while fighting crime and terrorism," justice and fundamental rights commissioner Viviane Reding said in a press statement.
The aim of the envisaged agreement is to create a framework of "legally binding personal data protection standards" that would apply to information transferred between the EU and the US in the context of police and judicial co-operation in criminal matters.
For instance, the agreement would "enhance" the right of citizens to access, rectify or delete data and would give independent public authorities a "stronger role" in helping people exercise their privacy rights and in supervising transatlantic data transfers.
It would also "ease the negotiation" of any subsequent EU-US agreements on transfer of a certain type of information, because important aspects could be dealt with by referring to the agreement, the commission says.
Early February, the European Parliament, citing privacy concerns, dealt a blow to EU-US anti-terrorist co-operation when it rejected an interim deal allowing US investigators to continue to have access to European bank transfers in their search for terrorism funding leads.
A new "Terrorism Financing Tracking Programme" (TFTP) is currently being negotiated by the commission, which aims to wrap up talks in the "next couple of months", in order to fill the "security gap" created by the parliament's veto, a spokesman said.
The overarching agreement, which will take at least a year to negotiate, pending approval of member states and the European Parliament, will not preclude TFTP talks.
"In an ideal world, we would have liked to have the framework agreement first," commission spokesman Matthew Newman said during a press briefing on Wednesday.
In case the terrorism-finance-tracking deal sealed beforehand bears "inconsistencies" with the umbrella agreement, "the TFTP would need to conform to the new agreement, following a transitional period," the commission says.
From the American side, this move is not seen as a new obstacle to the Swift agreement, as the umbrella deal was anticipated already last October. Back then, the EU and the US signed up to a set of common "Principles on privacy and personal data protection".
Differences within the EU
Member states tend to see the umbrella agreement favourably. Germany for instance had strong reservations on the rejected TFTP deal, also dubbed the "Swift agreement" after the main company facilitating international bank transactions.
"A framework EU-US agreement would be a great help, because you wouldn't need to go over the same issues each time you negotiate something like Swift or the passenger name records - but have a standard that you could apply to all agreements," German interior minister Thomas de Maiziere said last week in Berlin.
But he also highlighted the differences in "legal traditions" amongst Germany and the US, the UK or even Spain, which makes it even more difficult to reach a common denominator, as there is no common EU approach.
While Germans are perfectly comfortable with showing their ID cards with all personal data to a police officer, he said, the very idea of such a document is outrageous to Americans and Britons. Spaniards, on the other hand, have no issue with a medical card summing up all their medical history, something that would be inconceivable in Germany, where doctors would say this is a breach of the doctor-patient secrecy.
"I am happy that with all these diverging legal traditions there is more competence at EU level, so that we can level out some differences through compromise and negotiations," Mr de Maiziere concluded.