Europe’s Parliament Takes a Stand

Long a backwater, the institution has begun to flex its muscles on issues central to the transatlantic relationship. America should listen up.

Most Americans, if they think about the European Parliament at all, probably imagine a bunch of left-wing backbenchers goofing off in Brussels or Strasbourg with little of value to say on international security. But Americans may have to update their opinion — and their approach to transatlantic cooperation — now that the European Parliament has made a most unparliamentary gesture: blocking a deal on sharing bank data with the United States. U.S. policymakers saw this deal as a cornerstone of international counterterrorism efforts, but now, those efforts are on hold. The EU Parliament’s move is a sign that it wants to be a player in transatlantic security decisions — and the United States will just have to accept it.

The current conflict concerns data sharing between a European banking consortium called SWIFT and U.S. security agencies. After the September 11 attacks, the U.S. Treasury Department and the CIA began secretly requiring that SWIFT provide the U.S. government with information on all international banking transfers.

In 2006, the New York Times ran an exposé uncovering the program. As SWIFT is based in Belgium and European privacy laws prevent such data transfers, this sparked an international controversy that led to negotiations between the European Union and the United States. The Treasury Department argued that the program was invaluable for counterterrorism operations, as it allows U.S. intelligence agencies to pinpoint suspicious financial flows and has in fact prevented terrorist incidents. In the end, an agreement was reached between the United States and Europe that allowed for the sharing of some bank data. In particular, it specified the conditions under which information could be accessed and set up several mechanisms to prevent the wonton abuse of data by U.S. authorities.

But the European Union didn’t quite reckon with the European Parliament, which has grown increasingly powerful over the last two decades as an important proving ground for up-and-coming politicians. More importantly, the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force in December, gave the European Parliament new powers over homeland security — including oversight over ad hoc deals such as this one.

EU member states tried to play it clever by finalizing the bank-data deal the day before the Parliament’s new powers on homeland security went into effect. But they were too clever by half. To give the agreement the patina of legitimacy, the European Union put it before the Parliament as an up-or-down vote. The attempt to weasel the deal past the Parliament only succeeded in enraging parliamentarians who were already unhappy about the compromise worked out with the United States. In a stunning rebuke to the EU presidency that negotiated the deal and flexing their new powers under the Lisbon Treaty, the Parliament voted to kill the deal by a significant majority (378 to 196).

The Parliament’s stand has broad repercussions for transatlantic politics, signaling that the days of quiet backroom handshakes between European and U.S. officials are over. If the United States wants to avoid a series of confrontations and public controversies with Europe, it needs to pay attention to its legislature and understand the two key concerns that drive it.

First, the Parliament wants to become a real player in foreign policy — not just a rubber stamp. As the Parliament has sought new powers within Europe, it has again and again proved itself willing to block policy deals if it is not consulted. However, after it has won a place at the table, it has shown itself willing to play a constructive role.

Second, the Parliament has real privacy concerns. It has consistently sought to include strong privacy protections in international information-sharing agreements. It is a body of elected politicians, and European voters genuinely care about civil liberties. They are particularly worried about how the U.S. government uses personally sensitive information on European citizens. George W. Bush’s administration engaged in questionable human rights practices and forced European companies to provide information on European citizens. The United States has no comprehensive structure to oversee privacy protection for its own citizens, let alone Europeans. This has created a legacy of mistrust.

To build support for counterterrorism cooperation, the United States must explicitly accept that the European Parliament will play a key role in future negotiations. It has already begun to move in this direction by reassuring the Parliament that its concerns will be taken seriously. But a last-minute call by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is not the same as real involvement. The U.S. administration must treat the Parliament as a true negotiating partner, along with the EU member states, on information sharing and domestic security.

The U.S. administration can also address the Parliament’s substantive worries by creating its own privacy oversight structures and extending its protection to European citizens. A good first step would be to appoint new members to the administration’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. Created as one of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Report, the board was to advise the president and executive agencies on privacy and civil liberties issues relating to the war on terrorism. Never given true autonomy, the board has been inactive since the beginning of 2008. This board, reconstituted as an independent executive agency, would help persuade Europeans that the United States takes privacy seriously and would help rebalance transatlantic policy discussions.

U.S. policymakers, when faced by the complexities of Europe’s internal politics, are often tempted to simply walk away. This would be a serious mistake. If the United States wants to rebuild the transatlantic relationship and promote its own security interests, it must stop treating the European Parliament as an irrelevant afterthought.

Henry Farrell is the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Twitter: @henryfarrell

Abraham Newman is a professor in the government department and the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.