22nd Jan 2021

Sighs of relief as EU parliament approves 'Swift' deal

  • US vice president Joe Biden spoke of the importance of Swift on a visit to Brussels in May (Photo: Valentina Pop)

Top EU and US officials have breathed a collective sigh of relief after the European Parliament approved a new "Swift" deal on terrorism and bank data, closing a six-month "security gap" after it struck down an initial agreement in February.

After squeezing in last-minute concessions from the US side last week, MEPs, as expected, endorsed the new agreement by a large majority in Strasbourg on Thursday (8 July), with 484 votes in favour, 109 against and 12 abstentions.

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Under the new deal, which comes into force on 1 August, the EU will appoint an independent person to oversee the way personal data on bank transactions from the Belgium-based Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (Swift) is searched by US authorities when looking for terrorist funding.

US President Barack Obama personally welcomed the vote in a press statement, signaling relief that the "Terrorist Finance Tracking Program" could resume its operations based on Swift data after a months-long security gap.

"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," Mr Obama said, noting that the TFTP program has so far channeled over 1,550 investigative leads to EU member states.

"This new, legally binding agreement reflects significant additional data privacy safeguards but still retains the effectiveness and integrity of this indispensable counterterrorism program ...We are determined to protect citizens of all nations while also upholding fundamental rights."

European Parliament chief Jerzy Buzek said the vote "hopefully brings the Swift affair to an end.

He pointed to the "institutional lessons" learned from the rejection of the initial deal, which was signed off by member states just one day before the Lisbon Treaty came into force, granting the parliament a veto over the issue, in what looked like an attempt to keep MEPs' noses out.

"To avoid mishaps in the future, the council [of EU ministers] and commission must treat the European Parliament as an equal player at all stages of negotiations, keeping it fully informed and taking its views seriously into account," Mr Buzek said.

The parliament's veto in February had strained EU-US relations in an unpleasant surprise to the Obama administration. EU commission President Jose Manuel Barroso on Thursday said he was "very delighted" that MEPs backed the new deal, which "helps reinforce the transatlantic relationship."

In reaction to the vote, Swift CEO Lazaro Campos said that "protection of our customer data" remains his company's top priority.

"Swift will continue to maintain its own long-standing state-of-the-art protections. They include limiting the scope of data requests to anti-terrorism purposes only, segregating data to a secure environment and auditing every justification for data searches."

The company has had its own representative present in the data-extracting room since the beginning of the program. He will now be seconded by an independent EU-appointed person, on whose nomination the EU parliament wants to be consulted.

European system

The new agreement also foresees the possibility of creating an EU-level "Terrorism Finance Tracking Program" similar to the one set up in the US in the aftermath of 9/11.

The EU commission will come up with a technical assessment of an EU system in the second half of 2011.

Initially a covert operation tapping into a secret Swift database located on US soil, the program was disclosed in 2006 on the front page of the New York Times. Following the trans-Atlantic scandal, Swift decided to reconfigure its database structure so that it would no longer keep European data on US soil.

The change became operational on 1 January, prompting the US, in a bid to keep data flow uninterrupted, to negotiate the initial deal struck down by the parliament.

Another novelty of the final deal is that it grants a supervisory role to EU's police agency, Europol. The Hague-based agency can block data transfers if the requests are not in compliance with the agreement. It cannot, however, look at the specific cases, only at broad categories of data requested.

The agreement prohibits the US from engaging in "data mining" or any other type of speculative algorithmic or automated profiling or computer filtering. Any searches of Swift data will have to be based on existing information showing that the object of the search relates to terrorism or terrorism finance. 

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The EU commission and MEPs have requested clarifications from Washington on reported plans to expand an anti-terrorism programme targeting financial transactions - a move that would render void the long-debated "Swift agreement" enacted in August.

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