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15th Dec 2018

Biden sweet-talks MEPs on anti-terrorism deal

  • Joe Biden reassures MEPs of his administration's commitment to civil liberties (Photo: Valentina Pop)

In a highly-anticipated speech to the European Parliament on Thursday (6 May), US vice-president Joe Biden went to great lengths to reassure MEPs of Washington's commitment to civil liberties and privacy rights, wooing their support for a new anti-terrorist bank data deal after they rejected an earlier one in February.

Recognising the "new powers granted to this parliament by the Lisbon Treaty," Mr Biden was the first top US official in 25 years to formally address the plenary session of the EU legislature since then-president Ronald Reagan spoke to MEPs in 1985.

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He spared no compliments on the history of EU institutions, with the bloc set to mark on Sunday the 60th anniversary of the Schuman declaration, the key document which laid the foundation of what was later to become the European Union.

Brussels has a "legitimate claim" to the title of "capital of the free world," normally a title reserved for Washington, Mr Biden said. It is a "great city which boasts 1,000 years of history and serves as capital of Belgium, the home of the European Union and the headquarters of Nato."

Time and again he reassured MEPs of America's strong desire to have Europe as a "strong partner," even if they sometimes disagree.

The main source of current friction with the EU legislature is the "Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme" (TFTP), sometimes called the Swift agreement due to the name of the main company facilitating international bank transactions, which the US authorities screen when looking for terrorist leads.

Back in February, the European Parliament struck down an interim agreement allowing US investigators to inspect European data, dealing a blow to Washington's last-minute lobbying efforts. The No-vote was an expression of the new powers acquired by the EU legislature in the field of justice and home affairs, and was also justified by concerns on privacy and civil liberties.

A new agreement is currently being negotiated by the European Commission and the US administration, both hoping a deal could be sealed before summer recess. The parliament will then have to give its consent or to strike it down again.

Mr Biden spoke of his official and personal "profound commitment to civil liberties and privacy," saying that he had championed the cause for 37 years.

But he also stressed the need for governments to respect the "physical safety of their citizens" and to fight terrorism with "every legitimate tool available" that is "consistent with our values."

"We believe that the TFTP is essential to our security as well as yours, it has provided critical leads to counter-terrorist investigations on both sides of the Atlantic, disrupting plots and saving lives," he said.

"But I don't blame you for questioning it. We understand your concerns. As a consequence, we are working together to address them. It's important that we do so as quickly as possible. The longer we are without an agreement on the Terrorist Financing Tracking Programme, the greater the risk of a terrorist attack that could have been prevented."

MEPs listening to the speech said the Biden assurances were important as they showed the European Parliament was now on Washington's radar.

"The main message was that the Obama-Biden administration is listening to allies. You can't speak about partnership if one of the sides dictates to the other," Dutch Liberal MEP Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the rapporteur for the TFTP agreement, told this website.

She and other colleagues dealing with civil liberties and data protection issues returned from a visit to Washington last week and said the Obama administration was now committed to giving the European side "a more equal footing" in the negotiations.

"The No-vote was a wake-up call for the Obama administration, they suddenly realised we can block things. They've since shown willingness to co-operate," Ms Plasschaert said.

Green MEP Jan Albrecht, also part of the recent Washington delegation, noted that the Biden speech was "a good step forward," as it recognised the importance of the EU legislature, but that this still didn't mean the Swift agreement is a done deal.

Issues such as bulk data transfers, the definition of terrorism and the legal basis for the data being transferred to other countries could still trigger a second No-vote if not tackled in the agreement, he warned.

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