21st Jan 2021

EU prepares new bank data deal with US

  • Ms Malmstrom (l): The commission hopes to conclude the Swift negotiations by summer (Photo: European Commission)

A new deal allowing American investigators to monitor European bank transactions in the search for terrorist funding could be concluded by summer, the European Commission has said while presenting its negotiation mandate.

"The Americans want to start negotiations immediately, and we have good hopes that we might be able to finalise this by the summer," EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said on Wednesday (24 March) during a press briefing outlining the principles she would follow as lead negotiator on the matter.

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Informally dubbed the "Swift agreement" after the eponymous Belgium-based company facilitating international bank transfers, an interim deal allowing US investigators to acquire bulk data on European transactions in the search for terrorist funding was rejected in February by the European Parliament.

Lawmakers were dissatisfied with the level of data protection as well as over being sidelined from negotiations that took place last year under the rotating Swedish EU presidency, when Ms Malmstrom was the country's EU affairs minister.

The rejection came despite intense lobbying from both member states and US officials, putting a strain on Europe's relations with the Obama administration and prompting diplomats to complain that the parliament was displaying a lack of responsibility in dealing with security matters.

The Swedish politician stressed that the new mandate would take the parliament's concerns into account, including regular reporting to the parliament.

"I think we have learned important lessons from history here ...The commission must make sure that we have the highest possible level of protection for individual data, and that is something that we hope to accomplish with this," Ms Malmstrom said.

She stressed that the programme has helped European investigators as well, as US investigators tipped off their European counterparts whenever they found leads on terrorist financing which fell in their scope.

Set up in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, the US terrorism financing tracking programme tapped on a mirror data base Swift was maintaining on American soil. After news broke that the Europeans were unaware of this, Swift decided to re-configure its servers starting with January 2010, so that European data is no longer mirrored in the US. The interim agreement was aimed at avoiding a "security gap," allowing the information to flow uninterrupted to US authorities.

EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding suggested that one solution could be for the EU to set up its system for tracking such financing itself.

"We partly rely on the capacity of the Americans to analyse the data ...we need to build up something similar," she said.

Such a prospect remains distant, as it would have to be agreed by member states, taking into account the costs it would involve in setting it up, Ms Malmstrom replied.

First reactions from MEPs handling the file indicate that a second deal would face less opposition, after deputies ironed out the inter-institutional power struggle.

Dutch Liberal MEP Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the MEP shepherding the dossier through the chamber and the deputy recommending the former agreement be scrapped, welcomed the commission's proposals.

"I am encouraged by the inclusion of greater transparency, effective rights to redress and rectification, ...limitations on scope and length of data storage, prohibition of data forwarding to third countries and to reciprocity whereby the EU would develop its own terrorist finance tracking system rather than outsourcing intelligence gathering to the US," Ms Plasschaert said in a statement.

Once approved by member states, the mandate will allow the commission to lead the negotiations with the US authorities. The final agreement will then require both the national governments and the parliament's approval.

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