The World from Berlin 'Good News at Last From Europe'
The EU Parliament on Thursday blocked an agreement with Washington on sharing European bank data. The move marks a new era in EU politics, write German commentators, who largely agree that the European people now have more power as a result of the Lisbon Treaty. But will it hurt the war on terrorism?
What looked on Thursday like a setback for the war on terrorism -- to members of the Obama administration -- was cheered in Europe on Friday as a victory for citizens' rights. The European Parliament moved Thursday to reject a George W. Bush-era agreement that allowed United States authorities to inspect European bank transfers.
Obama officials had lobbied hard to extend the agreement, and both the European Commission and leaders of member states had already approved the treaty; but the European Parliament signalled a new era of confidence and self-assertion by blocking it, arguing that it violated European privacy laws. The unambiguous vote -- 378 to 196 -- comes against a background of shifting power in the EU.
Since just after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the US has had access to some banking information stored in vast databases by the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), a Brussels-based consortium of banks that handles international wire transfers. This "terrorist finance tracking program," a US Treasury official told the Washington Post on Thursday, "has been instrumental in protecting the citizens of the United States and Europe and has played a key role in multiple terrorism investigations. Today's outcome is a setback ... and leaves all of our citizens less safe."
Until last year, SWIFT kept some of its European data on servers in the US, which made it easier for Americans to eavesdrop. Last year, SWIFT moved the servers that handle its inter-European transfers to European soil, and the US no longer had direct access to the data. This required a renegotiation of the agreement. The EU's main decision-making body, the Council of the European Union, which is comprised of the leaders of the 27 member states, approved a deal last year to amend the existing treaty and provide time to negotiate a new deal together with the European Parliament before it expires.
However, the interim agreement rankled members of the European Parliament. "The (EU) Council has not been tough enough on data protection," Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, a representative from the Netherlands and the parliament's rapporteur on the SWIFT agreement, said Thursday.
A crucial development is that the EU's new constitution -- the so-called Lisbon Treaty, which came into effect on Dec. 1, 2009 -- gave the popularly elected parliament new powers over EU policy, which the representatives on Thursday showed they were eager to use. One of those powers is the requirement that any international EU treaty must be given parliament's stamp of approval before it can be ratified. Most German commentators on Friday welcome the vote as a sign of health, strength and democratic right in an EU that long suffered from a democratic deficit.
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"Members of the European Parliament have new powers in foreign affairs because of the Lisbon Treaty. They want to demonstrate this power to the European Commission (the EU's executive branch) and the Council. The Commission and Council have tended to sideline the parliament in the past. But beyond this power struggle, the broad nonpartisan rejection of the SWIFT agreement by EU lawmakers has shown they have a proper concern for both security and freedom. This issue promised to tilt the balance between them -- away from freedom."
"The term 'terrorism' is not well-defined (in the interim agreement), and could easily have been abused. The agreement would have allowed Washington to see not just specific, suspicious bank details, but whole data packets. There were neither sufficient guarantees against third-party sharing nor clear methods of restitution (by victims of abuse)."
"Some Washington officials will moan, but EU lawmakers have done a service to trans-Atlantic relations in the long run. Because now Washington will understand: Terrorism can be fought together, but not at the cost of European citizens' rights."
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, though, argues:
"Was this a heroic act for the protection of fundamental rights? Maybe we should leave the sanctimoniousness at home. The interim agreement would have expired in nine months anyway. US investigators haven't been blocked out; their job has merely been made more difficult. Washington will now look for bilateral agreements with specific European governments Now the Obama administration may have to regard 'Europe' as a bunch of wobbly regional politicians who can't be trusted when it comes to drying up the streams of international terror finance."
"This will have repercussions for EU-American relations, because now the sensitive field of anti-terrorism has been disrupted. Now President Obama will feel justified for deciding not to participate in this spring's EU-US summit. Is it because, perhaps, the EU lacks the necessary seriousness?"
The conservative daily Die Welt in turn argues:
"The EU Parliament has taken its first opportunity to show its teeth to the Commission and Council -- thanks to the Lisbon Treaty."
"There are two reasons for the Thursday's vote: Parliamentarians have protested the lack of data protection in this agreement for months. Moreover, the EU's 27 Interior Ministers (who make up part of the EU Council) thumbed their noses at the parliament last year when they tried to wave through the SWIFT agreement just hours before the new Lisbon Treaty came into effect. It struck the parliamentarians as the height of arrogance (for the ministers) to argue in favor of the Lisbon Treaty for years and then try to dodge its consequences with a back-room deal."
"Now the parliament must also live up to the demands of the Lisbon Treaty. A new SWIFT agreement should be forged quickly, if possible by the end of March. Everyone knows the arguments for and against, so no one on either side of the Atlantic should tolerate a new tug-of-war in Brussels. When the next terrorist attack occurs, none of our citizens will care about political finger-pointing."
The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:
"The EU Parliament has resisted the fatal formulation, 'freedom or security.' It has stood by its position that Europe's legal tradition demands a careful balance between the two. The Americans see things differently -- but this debate must go forward between equals."
"What happened Thursday can't be much of a surprise to Washington. Congress also balks when the White House tries to reach international agreements on its own. The recent climate change deal was just one example. This is just how democracy works -- and the EU Parliament on Thursday moved Brussels one small step closer to true democratic reform."
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"The parliamentarians like to refer to themselves as 'the voice of the people' because no one else in the EU is subject to a direct vote. Yet most European voters regard their 'voice' as pointless: Four out of seven sat out the last EU election, in 2009 -- a record number -- and 80 percent of German voters at the time considered their votes to be powerless."
"The SWIFT controversy is a perfect chance for the parliament to prove its effectiveness. The nine-year-old SWIFT agreement was not just a massive invasion of EU citizens' privacy. It was a prime example of the sort of back-room deals that have characterized the EU for years -- and have alienated Europeans from the entire EU project."
"This revolt against the SWIFT agreement is a foretaste of decisions in the coming years, particularly on security. The European Council and European Commission will now have to take the parliament seriously."
Business daily Handelsblatt likewise writes:
"Good news at last from Europe: The controversial SWIFT agreement between the EU and Washington has collapsed."
"The veto may nevertheless have bad consequences. The US will now try to access the data through other legal means. They will apply pressure on Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, where SWIFT maintains its servers. Because most Interior Ministers in Europe crave cooperation with American terrorism investigators at any price, they will make their own bilateral arrangements with Washington -- without democratic oversight by the European Parliament."
"There is a way out of this gray zone. Negotiations over the new SWIFT agreement are expected to start in February. This time -- in contrast with the EU's first, amateur-hour attempt -- the parliament should be included."
-- Michael Scott Moore, 1:30pm CET