Published: 23 April 2010
Despite staunch German opposition to parts of a draft EU-US bank data-sharing deal to counter terrorism, EU ministers will today (23 April) give the European Commission their blessing to renegotiate the revised agreement.
SWIFT is a Belgium-based private company that handles the banking transactions of thousands of banks, including most European ones.
Following the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the US government used the new Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme (TFTP) to force SWIFT’s American branch (which mirrors all data based in Belgium) to allow US officials access to all bank transactions in order to help anti-terrorism operations.
In a show of newly gained power under the Lisbon Treaty, in February 2010, the European Parliament blocked an interim SWIFT data-sharing agreement negotiated by the European Commission and the US Treasury (EurActiv 11/02/10).
Some European political groups, notably the liberal faction in the Parliament, have repeatedly criticised the agreement as "not only a restraint on European sovereignty but a massive intrusion into every single European citizen’s privacy".
Brussels-based diplomats said EU justice ministers, who are meeting in Brussels today, will give the European Commission their approval to renegotiate the SWIFT banking data sharing deal that was toppled by the European Parliament in February (EurActiv 11/02/10).
Despite opposition from German factions and "reservations" in the UK, the deal will go through, said diplomats.
The agreement, which has been a matter for intense debate in Europe, has been significantly rewritten to meet demands from MEPs who said it infringed the civil liberties of EU citizens on two major points: data retention and their rights in a court of law.
Germany and UK in row over data
Diplomats said that Germany and the UK have been sparring on how much room to give the US on access to bulk financial data via SWIFT and on how long unused data can be stored by the US Treasury.
The transfer of bulk data had previously been the elephant in the room, with civil liberties advocates and MEPs arguing for a considerable decrease in the level of data accessible via SWIFT servers.
"Germany has tried to water down the deal as much as possible," revealed a diplomatic source.
The UK is so keen to approve the deal, said sources, that it wants to rewrite "vague language" on bulk data which it believes would have a hard time getting US approval as it stands.
"They need something the US will sign up to," according to diplomatic sources, who said the UK wants to give the US room to request bulk data transfers, while Germany wants more restrictions on them.
Diplomats said Germany’s justice minister is most reluctant to rubberstamp the deal, as he is uncomfortable with allowing unused data to be stored for five years.
The US, according to European Commission officials, is keen to clinch an agreement by June as it is worried about a security gap during which would-be terrorists could plot fresh attacks.
SWIFT’s servers, according to the Belgium-based company, ceased transferring data to the US Treasury after the European Parliament rejected the proposal in February.
Alhough the agreement has given EU citizens reciprocal rights to their US counterparts, the text does not guarantee EU citizens the right to redress in an EU court, which has been a point of concern.
EU response to US anti-terror plan
On the margins of tomorrow’s talks, ministers will also discuss EU plans to mirror the US’s Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme (TFTP) set up after the 9/11 attack on the New York twin towers (EurActiv 25/03/10).
Diplomats say this will be a slow process as the EU will have to try to get the right technology and staff to create an EU TFTP.
"It would take a lot of time for the US to transfer its knowledge and technology for an EU TFTP," revealed a source.
"Bulk data will need to be maintained for technical and efficiency reasons," said Spanish Presidency representative Diego López Garrido.
Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said, "I know this is a great concern for the European Parliament, but without it there would be no TFTP (Terrorism Finance Tracking Programme)".
"Should the EU develop something similar to the TFTP, US authorities are willing to help us," she added.
"The European Parliament wants an agreement, but not an agreement at any cost," saidMEP Simon Busuttil (Malta), speaking on behalf of the European People’s Party group.
§ European Parliament: MEPs want to limit data transfers to USA
§ Brusselsblogger (Blogactiv): Is SWIFT simply lying?