Parliament gives 'half-hearted' support for US data deal
By Honor Mahony
A line was drawn grudgingly under what has become an iconic debate on security versus personal rights when MEPs on Thursday voted in favour of a new air data agreement with the US.
After a lengthy debate where many speakers acknowledged that the agreement was not ideal, 409 voted in favour of it and 226 against.
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The new set-up allows the US authorities to continue to gather an array of details, including names, addresses, credit card details, luggage and transfer flight details, from all air passengers coming from Europe – but under tighter conditions.
Ahead of the vote, home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom conceded that the deal is "not 100 percent perfect" but warned that further negotiation with the Washington "is not an option."
Dutch Liberal MEP Sophie In’t Veld, the lead deputy on the issue, urged her colleagues to reject the agreement.
"Ask yourselves, if other countries knock on our doors, and we know that they will, ... Cuba, China, Russia - are we willing to give them our data and (see it used) for profiling on the same terms as we are doing with the United States?"
Brussels and Washington have been debating the matter for almost a decade.
The US said it wanted access to passenger details following the September 2001 bombings in New York and Washington.
Since then, both sides have been tussling over the extent of the information the US can gather, who sees it and how, the length of time it is stored for and for what purpose.
A first agreement came into place in 2004. This was struck down by the European Court of Justice two years later. A much-criticised 'temporary' agreement followed in 2007. This will be replaced by the permanent arrangement approved by MEPs.
But the path to Thursday’s agreement has been tough with Brussels and Washington often ideologically opposed on the need to balance security concerns with those of privacy. The privacy-conscious parliament, meanwhile, gained new powers and was quick to use them on the PNR (passenger name record) issue.
As a result of parliament’s prodding, conditions for data use have tightened. US authorities are now obliged to inform EU authorities when they are following up on a lead using details from European air passengers.
Additionally the data must, in most cases, be made anonymous after a period of six months while the emphasis is on air carriers giving the data to US authorities rather than security officials simply taking it. Meanwhile citizens will have some judicial recourse if their data is misused.
But critics of the deal say that the rules are still too lax. They say there is nothing to stop US authorities from using the data for profiling, and that although data will be anonymised after a certain period it will not be deleted.
Opponents also point out that the text allows the up to 19 pieces of data to be used in customs and immigration checks as well as for public health purposes.
“ I think it is telling and it is disappointing that after nine years of negotiation with our closest friend and ally we can only come up with an agreement that commands half-hearted support from a divided House,” said In’t Veld.