SWIFT: EUROPEAN BANK DATA TRANSFERS MUST COMPLY WITH EUROPEAN STANDARDS, SAY MEPS
3 September 2009, States News Service: Members of the Civil Liberties Committee voiced concern on Thursday over the interim agreement under negotiation between the EU and the United States on data transfers via the SWIFT network. They criticised the Council's choice of legal base and demanded to be involved in the drafting of the agreement.
The question of SWIFT first arose in 2006 when the press revealed that the US administrative authorities were accessing data held on the Belgium-based financial network on European citizens without the knowledge of the European authorities. Following pressure by the European Parliament and some Member States, certain guarantees regarding privacy were given and the USA undertook to ensure that the data collected was used purely for anti-terrorist purposes.
In July this year, the press disclosed that a new accord was to be negotiated following a change in the structure of SWIFT. The Civil Liberties Committee had asked for details from Jacques Barrot, Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security, before organising a more far-reaching debate this week.
The head of SWIFT, Lazaro Campos, said "today's debate is not about SWIFT but about cooperation between Europe and the United States" and argued that the new architecture of the financial network, which will include a storage centre in Switzerland for European data, "is a key factor in the security of our clients".
A new negotiating mandate after Lisbon
Peter Hustinx, the European Data Protection Supervisor, said he had encouraged the change of structure as it meant all European data would be stored in Europe. However, he was "concerned about the need for and the proportionality of" an interim agreement with the USA and called for European data to be made subject to European data protection rules.
Jonathan Faull, director-general at the Commission's DG Justice, believed a new agreement was needed "so that SWIFT can operate in a legal framework. A number of negotiating criteria have therefore been proposed to reach a temporary accord, which will apply until a definitive agreement comes in under the Lisbon Treaty", he said. He also undertook to submit a fresh negotiating mandate to the Council as soon as the Lisbon Treaty is ratified.
SWIFT "is of benefit to our Member States"
The European anti-terrorism coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, told the meeting that the "Terrorist Finance Tracking Program" (TFTP), which is based on the SWIFT network, "is a very precious instrument in Europe too. It is of benefit to our Member States".
Vigilance crucial, say MEPs
Of MEPs who spoke, Stavros Lambrinidis (SandD, EL) asked "Ultimately, is the EU happy that our personal data goes off to the United States?". He said he was "very worried" and called on the Swedish presidency to be vigilant. He was backed by Sophie In't Veld (ALDE, NL), who was unhappy that "in this anti-terrorist policy, the states first do what they want and only afterwards ask if everyone agrees". She wanted the choice of the legal basis to be the subject of an external opinion and the details of the SWIFT dossier to be made public.
Ernst Strasser (EPP. AT) said it was "important that European data be processed in line with European standards (...). We also need legal certainty for companies and citizens". "It is important to conclude an agreement quickly, involving the European Parliament closely, then to renegotiate with a new mandate after Lisbon".
Timothy Kirkhope (ECR, UK) said "private companies are having to grapple with a difficult situation. We can't just leave them to it". He added "we must ensure that data are not transferred on the basis of criteria which are not ours".
"We're being drip-fed the information"
Jan Philipp Albrecht (Greens/EFA, DE) considered it "intolerable that such a sensitive agreement should be railroaded through by the Commission and Council. We're being drip-fed the information". He went on: "How come the Council's Legal Service recommended that the matter be dealt with under the first pillar and yet we're working under the third pillar?" Marie-Christine Vergiat (GUE/NGL, FR) also asked "Why is the second part of the debate taking place behind closed doors? Why not involve the European Parliament more?". Jonathan Faull replied that the negotiating mandate on the basis of the third pillar (which only allows Parliament a consultative role) that was given to the Commission had been adopted unanimously by the Member States in Council.