Euro Parliament rejects US accord on data sharing

Europe's stance in the tussle between civil liberties and the need for information to fight terrorism was pulled in opposing...

Europe's stance in the tussle between civil liberties and the need for information to fight terrorism was pulled in opposing directions on Wednesday.

Most European parliamentarians agreed at a meeting in Strasbourg to reject an EU-US accord permitting the sharing of personal information about air passengers flying to the US from Europe with US security authorities.
The European Parliament's role is purely advisory, but its rejection presents the European Commission - the EU's executive body, which negotiated the data-sharing accord with the US at the end of last year - with a difficult political problem.

While MEPs were voting, justice ministers of the 15 EU national governments agreed at a meeting in Brussels to give their law enforcement authorities access to some airline passenger data. The recent train bombs in Madrid secured the measure widespread support, some observers said.

Although intended as an instrument to fight illegal immigration into the EU, the UK has pushed hard to pass the measure, saying it was necessary in order to combat terrorism. The amount of data about passengers to be made available for security purposes is far less than that demanded by the US.

The meeting of ministers also rejected a proposal by some countries, including Sweden and France, to limit the amount of time that the passenger data may be stored to 24 hours.

Home Office minister Caroline Flint had campaigned against the 24-hour clause, arguing that such a restriction would violate UK law, and hinder further co-operation between enforcement agencies tracking terrorist suspects.

"We must use our intelligence intelligently," she said. "It is right we make the most of information collected at our borders by making it available to immigration authorities and law enforcement agencies across the EU."

MEPs are due to debate the new requirements for air passengers in Europe at a meeting on Thursday. Danny de Paepe, spokesman for the European Parliament's civil rights committee, said a proposal to reject the new European measure is unlikely to gain majority support.

"Spanish MEPs are likely to object to any attempt to curb antiterrorism measures, as are the Christian Democrats," he said.

Support for Wednesday's rejection of the EU-US passenger data accord was clear: 229 MEPs voted to reject it, with 202 in favour and 19 abstentions.

"In the US the protection of privacy is not regarded as a fundamental right, and only US citizens are granted the right to data protection," the civil rights committee said.

It urged the EC to reach "a proper international agreement with the US that would offer genuine guarantees for passengers."

"The commission takes note of the European Parliament vote and will reflect on the next steps at a forthcoming meeting of commissioners," said EC spokesman Jonathan Todd.

Paul Mellor writes for IDG

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