EU to vote to suspend U.S. data sharing agreements, passenger records amid NSA spying scandal

The European Parliament will vote — ironically of all days, on U.S. Independence Day on July 4 — whether existing data sharing agreements between the two continents should be suspended, following allegations that U.S. intelligence spied on EU citizens.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor
EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding listens to MEPS on matters relating to the NSA spying on EU citizens and politicians. Sat next to her, an EU 'bunny', given as a "gift" by a fellow politician.
Image: European Union

The European Parliament will vote on Thursday to adopt a resolution on measures against the U.S. government over the mass surveillance operation conducted by the National Security Agency.

In a plenary sitting in Strasbourg, numerous members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have called for the suspension of EU-U.S. trade talks, which are currently under way, until the picture surrounding the activities of the U.S.' intelligence activities becomes clearer. 

Also on the cards is the suspension of crucial EU-U.S. agreements, such as the Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme (TFTP) and the Passenger Name Records (PNR), which could see flights suspended between the two continents.

The U.S. government has been embroiled in an international diplomatic crisis over its intelligence agencies' spying on foreign nationals. Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden blew the whistle on a number of programs the U.S. employs to acquire masses of data on citizens around the world, including those in the European Union.

The U.K. government was embroiled in the NSA spying saga after it's Cheltenham-based listening station GCHQ was found to have tapped under-sea fiber optic cables, in an operation codenamed Tempora.

EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding told the parliament that she had sent U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague a letter seeking clarification on Tempora.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that the European Commission is examining if the U.K. broke EU law, which could lead to an infringement procedure against the British government. This could lead to financial sanctions imposed by the European Court of Justice. 

British MEP Sarah Ludford warned that other EU member states "also need to look at their cooperation with the NSA," and noted that Westminster had been "deafeningly silent" on the matter, and hoped the U.K.'s parliamentary committee on security and intelligence "did a better job."

PNR suspension could ground flights between EU, U.S.

In the resolution, submitted to the Parliament on Tuesday, more than two-dozen politicians from a range of political parties call the spying "a serious violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations," and call on the suspension of the Passenger Name Records (PNR) system.

Prior to leaving the airport, airlines must make passenger data available to the U.S. Names, dates of birth, addresses, credit or debit card details and seat numbers are among the data — though critics say the information has never helped catch a suspected criminal or terrorist before.

Should the PNR system be suspended, it could result in the suspension of flights to the U.S. from European member states.

MEPs mixed on suspension of free trade discussions

One of the options available to the EU is to suspend discussions on the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, otherwise known as the TTIP, is thought to be worth billions of dollars for both continents on each side of the Atlantic. It will help to eliminate tariffs on trade, and open up the doors to transatlantic partnerships and a boon to the technology and science industries, among other sectors. 

German MEP Axel Voss said the Obama administration should be "adequately explained," demanding that the delegations on the TTIP should be suspended, as did French MEP Marie-Christine Vergiat‎, who was one of two MEPs who called on the EU to give Snowden asylum in the 28 member state bloc.

Spanish MEP Juan Fernando López Aguilar, who chairs the European Parliament's Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs committee, also called on the suspension of the free trade agreement negotiations.

But other MEPs speaking in the Parliament on Wednesday instead suggested the suspension of exchange of data between the two continents.

"The U.S. systematically comes into our homes, our embassies, and our institutions," said Italian MEP Salvatore Iacolino. "But it would be wrong to block EU-U.S. negotiations which have just gotten under way, as this would penalize EU citizens twice over," he noted, instead pointing the figure at the "exchange of data" with the United States.

His comments were in regard to reports in the German media, which claimed EU institutions and embassies in the U.S. had been bugged by U.S. law enforcement.

Dutch MEP Sophie in 't Veld, a strong advocate of privacy and data protection rights in the EU, said she was against suspending the trade talks, but said the EU should make it "absolutely clear we cannot sign an agreement with a partner we cannot fully trust." 

She told her colleagues: "I do not want to hear the argument of national security anymore," she added. "Sorry, bugging the EU offices in Washington is a matter of 'national security'? Blanket surveillance of millions of innocent citizens is a matter of 'national security'? I do not buy that anymore."

A number of MEPs specifically called on U.S. President Barack Obama to meet with the Parliament to explain his government's actions. PRISM began during President George W. Bush's administration after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

EU justice chief: Citizen redress, or no deal

Reding, in spite of the parliamentary resolution on deck for an upcoming, she will not sign off on an "umbrella agreement" between the U.S. and the EU, a decision that was met with a round of applause for the European vice-president.

The agreement is designed to make it much easier for the U.S. and EU to share data that will cover future transfer arrangements for anti-terror operations between the two continents, from banking data and passenger name records, for instance.

Citing reciprocity between the two continents, "some progress was made on around half of the provisions," she told members on Wednesday.

"But it is now time to address key issues on the equal rights of EU and U.S. citizens, and effective judicial redress," Reding said. "I can not understand why a U.S. citizen has the right to redress in the EU, but an EU citizen does not have the right to redress in the U.S. We continue to negotiate because I keep that on the table. If we had given up that right, we would have already signed the agreement."

"And I will not sign the agreement so long as we do not have the reciprocity. And as long as we have not found the solutions in accordance with EU law on difficult issues, such as data retention."

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