US and Europe clash over access to financial transfer data

THE US is throwing a hissy fit over MEPs threatening to dump an agreement that allows American authorities access to all data on international financial transfers carried out through European banking SWIFT service.

For the past few days the phone lines from Washington to Brussels have been hopping as senior US politicians, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, put pressure on the Europeans to seal the deal.

The US ambassador to the EU William Kennard has even written to the European Parliament president warning that if they fail to vote for the agreement when it comes before them next Thursday, they will become irrelevant. Instead they will negotiate agreements with individual member states – the old method of divide and conquer that frequently keeps EU member states at odds with one another.

The last time there was such a hue and cry was when US industry chiefs in Europe and the then Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to have abolished the REACH legislation that insists chemicals in everyday use such as shampoo must be tested for safety.

Now the heavy guns are out again and MEPs will be under huge pressure over the next few days to change their attitude and vote for the interim SWIFT agreement. There are fears that without the deal terrorists would freely use European banks for transfers while the MEPs say the interim agreement sets dangerous precedents on data protection.

The US stepped up its access to international banking transactions following 9/11. But it really only hit the headlines four years ago when the New York Times broke the story that they also had access to SWIFT, the messaging service used by mainly European banks for their transfers.

It transpired that the data was being given not just to anti-terrorist bodies tracing transfers and money laundering by terrorist organisations but was also available to all kinds of US services and to other countries.

Fears grew the Americans were using the data for commercial purposes to give their businesses an inside track.

Because the Belgian company, SWIFT, had set up a mirror site in the US, they had to comply with subpoenas from the authorities there even through their actions were contrary to European data protection legislation.

The European Parliament kicked up merry hell at the time and the EU got some guarantees from the US. SWIFT also moved its site from the US to the Netherlands – presumably to be less vulnerable to US pressure.

A new agreement was signed that ended last Monday and the interim deal agreed by ministers from the EU countries a few weeks ago took over. But such deals can no longer be secret as the Parliament has a say in them now thanks to the changes in the Lisbon treaty.

The details were discussed, and rejected, by the Parliament’s civil liberties committee last week in Brussels. And a headcount on Friday suggested enough MEPs agreed with them to vote it down in Strasbourg this week.

A full scale campaign is under way by the US to change as many minds as possible. Apart from the phone calls and letters, many documents are floating around to show that the US authorities tipped off Europeans about terror plots in their countries, thanks to information they gleaned from financial transfer documents.

Having an unruly Parliament that also has powers is a new experience for EU member states. However, it should be something President Obama is used to by now given his experience with Congress on his health bill for instance.

It will be interesting to see if the Parliament’s actions will cause President Obama to reconsider his decision not to attend the EU-US annual summit. It has been said that he is confused by all the presidents he meets at such events.

On the other hand it would give him an opportunity to meet Parliament president Jerzy Buzek, who by now has been contacted by just about every other important person in the US administration.

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