Important as the fight against terrorism is, expediency should not override democratic scrutiny and open debate, when fundamental rights are at stake.
Have matters improved since early Friday afternoon?
Actually, Friday brought some improvements, but left the fate of the SWIFT agreement between the EU and the US hanging in the air.
Presidency and Council information
During Friday, the Swedish presidency of the Council of the European Union published information about the Council meeting Monday 30 November 2009, Justice and Home Affairs configuration: Stockholm Programme and work to combat human trafficking at Council meeting. The general press release highlights “some of the issues”, but not the SWIFT agreement.
The provisional agenda of the JHA Council meeting (dated 13 November 2009; document CM 4735/09) still mentions the bank data transfer agreement, without any reference to documents of substantive value:
“Council Decision authorising the signing of an Agreement between the European Union and the United States of America on the processing and transfer of Financial Messaging Data for purposes of the Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme
Understandably, the short pre-meeting video with ambassador Christian Danielsson on preparation in Coreper II concentrates on the strategically important five year Stockholm Programme, which covers the whole of the evolving area of freedom, security and justice, but the interview makes no mention of the SWIFT deal.
The Background note on the Justice and Home Affairs Council 30 November to 1 December 2009, by the Council Press service (dated 27 November 2009), breaks the silence by mentioning the US agreement among the highlighted questions (front page):
“Ministers will also discuss a draft EU-US agreement on financial messaging data for counterterrorism investigations.”
Under Home Affairs (Monday, 30 November), the background note presents the following general information about the financial data transfer agreement (page 5):
“EU-US agreement on financial messaging data for counter-terrorism investigations
The Council will discuss an EU-US agreement on the processing and transfer of financial messaging data for purposes of the US Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme (TFTP).
The negotiations on the agreement started in July 2009 and responded to a decision by the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) to store its European financial messaging data no longer in a database located in the US, but only in Europe. The agreement aims to continue to allow the US Department of the Treasury to receive European financial messaging data for counter-terrorism investigations, while ensuring an adequate level of data protection.
Under the Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme (TFTP), the US Department of the Treasury seeks to identify, track and pursue suspected terrorists and their providers of finance. It was set up shortly after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.
Relevant results of the US analysis have been and will, under the draft agreement, continue to be shared with EU member states. A report by the former French investigating judge Jean-Luis Brugière, commissioned by the Commission, concluded in December 2008 that the TFTP had generated considerable intelligence value also to the EU member states.
SWIFT is a Belgium-based company which operates a worldwide messaging system used to transmit, inter alia, bank transaction information. It has been estimated that SWIFT handles 80% of the worldwide traffic for electronic value transfers.”
Where do we stand?
We note that the background note Friday says “discuss a draft”, not “sign” or “approve”. Does this mean that concluding the agreement is off the agenda Monday, and that the governments are going to give the EU’s data protection rules and parliamentary procedures some serious thought?
We also note that the information on offer – although a huge improvement on past practice – is bland, incomplete and one-sided. Privacy, data protection or fundamental rights are not mentioned, but valuable intelligence is. There are no documentary references to enlighten debate.
The SWIFT agreement is not among the issues debated publicly on the JHA webcast Monday 30 November 2009.
The fight against terrorism is too important to spoil by shady dealings and sowing mistrust in an EU on the threshold of becoming a union, “in which decisions are taken as openly as possible and as closely as possible to the citizen”.
Admittedly, proceedings behind closed doors have created a problem with the end of the year approaching fast. Still, I am reasonably optimistic that, given the opportunity, the European Parliament would do its bit to look for temporary solution if the Council agrees to trust our system of representative democracy.
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