'The Americans Want to Blackmail Us': European Parliament Balks at US Data Deals

By in Brussels

Part 2: EU Parliament Threatens Resistance

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere has warned against the scaremongering of terror threats in Europe. Zoom
AP

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere has warned against the scaremongering of terror threats in Europe.

Many MEPs concerned with data privacy and domestic security issues are up in arms over the revelations in Vienna and the news from Washington. "The Americans want to blackmail us," said an agitated Alexander Alvaro, home affairs spokesman of the Germany's Free Democratic Party (FDP) in the European Parliament. The Americans have become "like a data octopus," he said, as if their tentacles were reaching out to all the world's data. He said that Europeans would not go along with it and that they would "defend themselves." Alvaro's Dutch colleague Sophie in 't Veld is also outraged: "Americans think everything is permitted." This attitude, she said, is now beginning to rub off on European investigators. Time and again executives come to in 't Veld in her role as chair of the European Parliament's Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs committee to tell her confidentially that they have been illegally forced to hand over "their complete customer data."

In a letter to the president of the European Commission, the Liberals (as the FDP and similar parties in other countries are called in the European Parliament) have called on him to "clarify urgently" the details of the US government's intentions and to immediately inform parliament. Jan Philipp Albrecht, interior affairs expert for the German Green Party, has called for the "European Commission to put the US government in its place."

Comments such as this would previously have only caused a few smiles -- the European Parliament never had much of a say in matters or any real power. However, that changed when the Lisbon Treaty came into force on Dec. 1, 2009, and parliament now has a decisive say on numerous issues. The fact that MEPs take this new role very seriously, especially when it comes to data protection, was made clear when they blocked the so-called "SWIFT" agreement for months in the face of intense pressure from Washington.

"SWIFT": The First Strike

Secretly and illegally at first, and later even with the consent of EU governments, the US authorities monitored the bank transfers of tens of thousands of European citizens for years as part of its anti-terrorism operation. This was done via access to the mainframe computers of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT).

The Belgian company processes money transfers between around 8,000 financial institutions in over 200 countries. Largely unchecked, the Americans were able to simply help themselves to the data. European governments and, especially their interior ministers, didn't think it was a bad thing. They also would have been keen to simply extend their deal allowing the Americans access to the transfers data. But members of the European Parliament didn't want to play along. At first a handful, then many and finally almost all the members of parliament joined forces to hinder the process for months.

The Americans finally yielded. And even after parliament's intervention, things still aren't totally clean. But it has, at least, forced Washington to agree to accept European data protection standards. For example, US officials must now state concrete grounds for suspicion when requesting to see a European citizen's financial transfers.

And they even have to tolerate an EU watchdog in their own bank intelligence offices in Washington. That's why, data protection experts suspect, Washington is now bringing in new laws. They want a return to the good old days of unbridled spying. And that's exactly what Europe's brave MEP's are fighting to prevent -- and they've already chosen their weapon.

An agreement between the EU and the US on the exchange of airline passenger data -- the "Passenger Name Records (PNR)" in US government jargon -- is currently due for renewal. The agreement allows the US Department of Homeland Security access to the databases of European airlines and the information they hold on their customers. Under the current terms, Homeland Security officials have been able to collect anything that interested them. If it was up to Europe's interior ministers, they would continue to be able to do so in the future.

MEPs Warn of a "Data Wild West"

But now, at the end of the process, Europe's interior ministers must obtain the approval of the European Parliament. And "I can guarantee they won't get it for an agreement like the old one" said Dutch politician in 't Veld. Only in limited cases of well-founded suspicion should an airline be forced to surrender data on its customers, she said. Data storage should also be restricted and the US should be barred from transferring data to third party governments. A "Wild West" approach to data will no longer be accepted, said Axel Voss, an MEP with Germany's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) who is a member of the interior and justice committee.

Many MEPs also have the feeling that they are being tricked. If the United States first signs an agreement, like SWIFT, and then tries to overturn it in other ways, or if Washington forces through what is not achievable at EU level by blackmailing individual national governments one by one, then how and why should negotiations continue? asks Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee chairwoman in 't Veld."The Americans' word doesn't count for much anymore anyway," she said.

Indeed, long and tricky negotiations are likely to be up next on the agenda between Washington, Europe's interior ministers and the MEPs.

Translated from the German by Josie Le Blond

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