28th Mar 2017

Parliament threatens to derail EU-US bank data deal

  • European bank transfer data can no longer be accessed by US authorities (Photo: SWIFT)

The European Parliament is threatening to derail an interim agreement allowing US authorities to track European bank transactions in terrorism investigations unless certain concessions are made.

The president of the European Parliament Jerzy Buzek at the end of last week sent a second letter to the Spanish EU presidency asking for more information on the so-called Swift agreement.

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"We have not received any answers to the first letter, sent in December to both the [outgoing] Swedish and the [incoming] Spanish EU presidencies," a spokesman for Mr Buzek said.

A plenary debate on the matter is scheduled for Wednesday in Strasbourg, during which the Spanish presidency is expected to give more answers on the technicalities of the deal.

The agreement would allow US prosecutors and investigators to tap into intra-European bank transactions as part of anti-terrorist enquiries - something EU lawmakers say raises privacy concerns.

The parliament can still scrap the agreement, even after it comes into force on 1 February, pending the lawmakers' "consent." A final deal should be negotiated by the end of the year, together with the EU parliament.

"In order for Parliament to be in a position to give its consent or not, it had laid down two clear conditions, namely that Parliament is granted full access to information related to this interim agreement and that its concerns are fully reflected in the negotiating mandate for the longer term agreement required once the interim agreement expires at the end of October," a press release by the Liberal group in the EU legislature reads.

The Liberals have spearheaded the issue, with their leader, Guy Verhofstadt, indicating that he has the support of other groups to "reject the agreement altogether" if the Spanish EU presidency does not come forward with some concession.

The interim deal was sealed by EU justice ministers on 30 November last year, just one day before the coming into force of the Lisbon Treaty - rules granting the EU legislature more powers in the field of justice and home affairs.

At the time lawmakers criticised the "rush" to sign the deal, while the US pointed to the fact that the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (Swift) was about to stop storing data on European transactions on US soil by the end of 2009.

If parliament took the controversial step of refusing to give its consent, the US would no longer have access to intra-EU transactions - something that would strain relations between Brussels and Washington, especially in the wake of the Christmas Day bomb plot in Detroit.

Swift in 2006 was thrust into the centre of an EU-US dispute after it emerged that the American authorities had been secretly using information on European transactions as part of their so-called War on Terror.

A Belgium-based company, Swift, kept a database on US territory, giving Washington a legal handle on its global activities.

The company records international transactions worth trillions of dollars daily, between nearly 8,000 financial institutions in over 200 countries.

"From 1 January, we have changed the architecture of the Swift network, keeping intra-European traffic in Europe – one database in the Netherlands and a mirror database in Switzerland," Euan Sellar, a spokesman for the company told EUobserver.

He said Swift is "currently waiting" to hear the legal details of the agreement, noting that the US authorities had no mandate to ask for European transactions. "We'll have to see once the deal comes into force, if it's legally binding, we will comply," he said.

Meanwhile, US officials, asking not to be named, told this website that the EU parliament had been regularly informed of the importance of having such data made available to anti-terrorist investigators.

"We prefer to use the 'Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme' label instead of Swift, because there are several other companies involved as well," one US official said.

As to the final agreement, Washington is hoping the EU parliament will "move swiftly" so that the deal is in force by the end of October when the interim agreement expires.

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