EU bows to US pressure over access to our banking data

Dennis Nottebaum
1 December 2009

After massive pressure from US diplomats the European Union has agreed to prolong the covert monitoring of international financial transactions. The so called “SWIFT agreement”, named after the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), an international network of financial transaction information, grants US government agencies and intelligence services access to European banking data for the purpose of anti-terrorism activities.

In spring 2006 it had become known that US intelligence agencies had accessed the data illegally – provoking an outcry among liberal politicians and data protection advocates. SWIFT is based in Brussels, but a backup server is located in the United States, where access for US authorities services was easy under anti-terrorism laws. Both of SWIFT’s servers will be moved to the Netherlands and Switzerland, respectively, by the end of the year, which would restrict US governmental access to the data. The new agreement now enables the US to receive data from the Swiss server in a continued effort to collaborate in anti-terrorism activities. Although data transfers to US authorities are limited to people with links to terrorist activities, SWIFT could provide a wide array of data in those cases where a pinpointed request is impossible.

The agreement in itself is highly controversial and possibly violates European data protection laws, although the information sharing is said to have lead to some achievements in fighting terrorism in the past. But what is all the more striking about the issue is the hurry in which the agreement was pushed through the EU Council on November 30th. On December 1st the Lisbon Treaty came officially into effect. It grants the European Parliament equal decision-making competences in many fields – including internal and security affairs. Had a decision in the Council been postponed, the Parliament would have had the right to co-author the agreement. Given the widespread opposition among MEPs against the current version of the information exchange, the issue would arguably have resulted in a long debate. Under intense pressure from US diplomats the EU interior ministers hurriedly approved the agreement, effectively bypassing the Parliament. The Parliament will still have to vote on the matter, but has no chance to impact the contents of the agreement.

There was only modest resistance from some member states, most notably Austria and Germany. The new governing coalition in Germany had agreed on blocking the deal in its coalition agreement under pressure from the liberal Free Democrats. But while the liberal protest had been vociferous for some time, it was hardly audible over the last week. On Monday, Germany, as well as Austria, Hungary, and Greece, abstained from the vote, a single “nay” would have been enough to put the agreement on ice. (Interestingly, there was also hardly any media attention on the proceedings outside of Germany.)

So far the deal is said to be only an interim solution until a long-term agreement can be negotiated. Nevertheless, the hurry in which this was pushed through the Council against the opposition of not only privacy protection advocates, but politicians from all major fractions in the Parliament, is rather startling. After all, the problem had been known for at least 3.5 years. This is not only an overhasty move that possibly undermines existing data protection laws, but also a blow in the face of the European Parliament.

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