EC puts on hold proposed data deal with Israel


THE EUROPEAN Commission has suspended plans, resisted by Ireland, to allow the transfer to Israel and storage there of sensitive personal data on European citizens.

Responding to concerns raised by Dublin, justice commissioner Viviane Reding moved yesterday to halt the immediate adoption of an EU declaration that Israeli data protection systems are in line with European standards.

Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern campaigned to have the plan scrapped in the light of disquiet about the use of eight fake Irish passports by the alleged Israeli assassins of Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied involvement in the killing.

Although Ms Reding’s office disputed the Minister’s assertion that the commission withdrew the proposal when a committee on data protection met yesterday in Brussels, no vote was taken and the EU executive pledged to seek clarification from the Israeli authorities on its data protection systems.

Dublin believes the data used in the forged Irish documents was gleaned from the official inspection of travellers’ passports. This led Mr Ahern to question in strident terms whether the EU authorities should allow personal data on Europeans to be held by Israel.

The meeting was called on foot of an Irish manoeuvre to block the adoption in July of a written procedure under which the commission asked EU governments to endorse the declaration. In the absence of such a declaration, data transfers to Israel are illegal under EU law.

No other EU state expressed reservation about the plan, fanning expectation that the meeting yesterday would give Ms Reding the go-ahead to make the declaration. In the event, however, the commission halted the process.

The Government is concerned that the manual inspection of passports is not subject to data protection under Israeli law and also questions the independence of the authorities charged with ensuring data protection in Israel. “The Minister welcomes the decision by the EU Commission to withdraw the proposal with regard to Israel,” said a spokesman for Mr Ahern.

A spokesman for Ms Reding said the plan was still in play. “A decision has been delayed.”

“It’s not correct to say the proposal has been withdrawn. There were no conclusions from today’s meeting and the commission continues to analyse the situation.

“We are clarifying some questions from a delegation and there has been no decision on whether to call another meeting.” Mr Ahern has expressed annoyance that the commission wanted to proceed with the plan “on the nod”, something rejected by Ms Reding. Her spokesman said there was no attempt to push adequate scrutiny of the Israeli systems. The testing of Israel’s systems continued “for months and months,” he said.

The Government acknowledged that the commission may table the proposal again at a later date.

“After effectively forcing a discussion on the issue and raising our genuine concerns, the commission have listened and withdrawn the proposal,” said Mr Ahern’s spokesman.

“We will study very carefully what clarifications and what additional safeguards the commission can outline to this committee.

“The bottom line with regard to this proposal was that a country that is at the centre of a very serious international incident involving the death of a man and the use of forged passports would be given the go-ahead with regard to transfer of personal data of EU citizens.

“Effectively today the EU Commission has accepted Ireland’s position that we need far more information on those safeguards, what powers the data protection commissioner has there – is he independent? – and so on.”