US fights for access to EU bank data


THE US government has initiated a diplomatic offensive against threatened moves by MEPs to block a deal that gives American intelligence agencies direct access to European bank data.

Less than a month after MEPs forced the withdrawal of Bulgaria’s first nominee to the incoming EU Commission, the US campaign underscores the increasing power of the European Parliament.

Socialist, Green and Liberal opposition to the agreement means it is likely to be rejected when MEPs vote in Strasbourg next Thursday.

The nine-month interim deal, unanimously backed by EU governments, was designed to allow space for negotiations this year on a permanent deal.

The arrangements empower the US to track the flow of funds through the banking system by accessing information collected by the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (Swift), which registers international money transfers.

“The EU and US cannot afford to handicap our investigators by preventing access to key data that are valuable, legally obtainable and subject to scrupulous review and oversight,” wrote US treasury under-secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence Stuart Levey in Europolitics, a specialist publication.

However, many MEPs argue the scheme flouts privacy. “The fight against terrorism is a priority, but the EU cannot be allowed to ride roughshod over its citizens’ fundamental rights,” said Socialist group leader Martin Schulz, a German MEP.

Well-versed European sources say Washington has made its views known in clear terms in a series of engagements between EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and US secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Ms Clinton also lobbied Jerzy Buzek, the parliament’s president.

Sources also say senior US officials have made similar overtures in several European capitals and with José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission. The US also lobbied Spanish premier José Luis Zapatero, whose country holds the union’s six-month rotating presidency.

Washington previously had access to the bank data under anti-terrorism measures introduced after the 9/11 attacks. However, the Americans lost such access when SWIFT moved its computer servers from the US to the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Analysts believe MEPs who oppose the deal have the numbers to vote it down this week, eliminating the current arrangements and sending the EU and the US back to the negotiating table. Socialist, Green and Liberal MEPs have a combined 317 seats in the 736-seat parliament.

If the deal was scrapped the US would have to request data on a country-by-country basis. The current agreement, in force provisionally since last week, applies limits to what American officials can do with the information and how long they can keep it.

MEPs on the parliament’s civil liberties committee rejected this arrangement last week by a margin of 29 votes to 23 with one abstention, setting the tone for a wider debate on the plan next Wednesday.

The vote follows the enactment of the Lisbon Treaty in December, which increases parliamentary oversight of all international agreements that the EU seeks to make.

The EU and US reached the interim agreement on November 30th, one day before the Lisbon reforms came into force. Many MEPs took offence at this manoeuvre, as they had significantly fewer oversight powers prior to Lisbon.

In the old system, an international pact that the EU entered could not come into force fully without the parliament’s consent to the final text.

Under Lisbon, however, the parliament has the right to become involved in the negotiation of such agreements. In practice this means the parliament must agree a written mandate for European negotiators in international talks.