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25th Sep 2020

MEPs demand explanation on US plan to monitor all money transfers

  • The land of the free is has seen a huge build up of security measures since the 9/11 attack (Photo: Valentina Pop)

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.

"We urgently seek clarifications from the US if these plans are an infringemet of the Swift agreement and the EU commission promised to demand further information on it," Dutch Liberal MEP Sophie in't Veld told this website on Monday evening (27 September) after a closed-door meeting with commission officials.

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Earlier that day, the Washington Post reported that the Obama administration was looking into expanding existing anti-terrorism programs targetting bank transfers to the extent that a long-debated agreement with the EU, dubbed the "Swift agreement," would no longer be valid.

Under current rules, US officials can request European data relevant to a specific terrorist investigation from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (Swift). The request needs to be approved by the EU's police co-operation unit, Europol, and has to meet certain requirements.

But if the new plans go into effect, the Washington Post said: "transactions between European and US banks would be captured regardless of whether there is a substantiated need."

Responding to the news, Ms in't Veld said: "We are all getting a bit tired of being taken by surprise all the time. The US is our friend and ally, so we shouldn't be treated this way."

Set up in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, the "Terorrism Finance Tracking Program" was initially a covert operation, tapping Swift data without the Europeans knowing about it. It was only when the story broke, in 2006, that Washington engaged in basic negotiations with the EU, while keeping the programme up and running.

Using its new powers, acquired when the Lisbon Treaty came into force, the European Parliament in February struck down the interim agreement, interrupting the data flow for half a year. A final agreement was subsequently negotiated by the EU commission, with extra privacy and oversight provisions, and came into force on 1 August.

"We see so many data transfers - passenger name records (PNR), Swift data, credit card information connected to the travel fee - that we are wondering where all this ends," the Dutch MEP said.

Ms in't Veld is responsible for drafting the Parliament's position on the so-called PNR agreement, which, like the Swift programme, was put into place after the 2001 terrorist attacks and which requires all airlines who fly to or over the US to deliver personal data on their passengers to the American authorities.

The PNR agreement was already struck down once by the European Court of Justice for having the wrong legal basis and the current version is pending approval by the EU legislature.

A compromise solution designed to discourage the parliament form using its "nuclear option" veto is currently being prepared by the EU commission with extra data protection provisions in place. The EU executive earlier this month presented its guiding principles for new negotiations with Washington, to be approved by interior ministers in October. The talks could start by the end of this year.

"I am not blaming the US for asking us for so much data. They test where the limits are and unless the EU draws some lines, they will take as much as they can," Ms in't Veld said.

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