German MEPs Lead Euro-Revolt Against Terrorist Finance Tracking Program

In a major blow to transatlantic cooperation on counterterrorism, the European Parliament voted last week to reject an interim EU-U.S. agreement on bank data sharing, which would have permitted American investigators to continue inspecting selected European bank transfer data as part of the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program (TFTP).

The so-called SWIFT agreement -- named for the Belgian-based bank cooperative that holds the data -- was defeated by a vote of 378 to 196 with 31 abstentions. The vote was held anonymously in what would normally be described as a secret ballot. (As it happens, European Parliament nomenclature reserves the latter designation for a separate procedure, somehow managing to construe a meaningful distinction between a “secret ballot” and “electronic voting, [in which] anonymity is preserved and it isn't possible to know how each MEP voted.”)

The agreement was defeated despite the submission to the European institutions of a report by French investigative judge Jean-Louis Bruguière that found the TFTP to be a “vital counterterrorism tool.” The Bruguière report specifically identifies numerous terror plots that were either elucidated or indeed quashed with the help of the TFTP. These include the 2002 Bali bombings, the 2004 “M-11” Madrid train bombings, the 2005 London transport bombings, the transatlantic airliner plot that was broken up in the UK in 2006, the planned “Sauerland cell” attack on U.S. military installations in Germany that was broken up in 2007, and the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The report also outlines numerous safeguards put in place by the U.S. Treasury Department and SWIFT in order to assure that data is exclusively requested and used for the purpose of ongoing terror investigations.

Despite the anonymity of the voting procedure, review of the events leading up to the vote makes clear just which block of delegates led the charge against the SWIFT agreement. Members of the Socialist, Green, and “United Left” groups undoubtedly voted by and large against it, and those of the two major “conservative” groups, the European People's Party (EPP) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), undoubtedly voted by and large for it.

But support and opposition did not run strictly along party lines. Most notably, the virtual entirety of the German parliamentary cohort -- the largest national grouping comprising some 99 delegates -- appears to have opposed the agreement regardless of party affiliation. The German opposition evidently included -- as Germany’s paper of record, Die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, has noted -- “nearly all” the representatives of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). The CDU/CSU is part of the main “conservative” formation in the European Parliament, the EPP.

One week before the plenum vote, in the first clear sign that the agreement would go down to defeat, a majority in the parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs already voted to recommend its rejection. After the committee vote, German committee member Manfred Weber explained to Austria’s Wiener Zeitung that his own CDU/CSU delegation and the Austrian mainstream “conservative” party, the ÖVP, had broken away from the other national delegations in the EPP group and were opposing the agreement. On Weber’s account, the Socialist group displayed “a similar pattern” -- an apparent reference to support for the SWIFT agreement among Spanish socialists.

Both the leading German role in killing the agreement and the remarkable cross-party homogeneity of the German opposition were clearly on display in the parliamentary debate that preceded the plenum vote. (Click here to view the full debate with simultaneous translation.) Thus, three of the four group leaders who took the floor to oppose the agreement were Germans. Working himself up into a typically fine lather, Martin Schulz, the leader of the Socialist group, said:

Mr. President! In his book Gulliver’s Travels, the Irish author Jonathan Swift sent Gulliver on a trip … to the land of the midgets. But Mr. Gulliver noticed that he had [instead] arrived in the land of the giants. It seems to me somewhat that American diplomacy has followed Gulliver’s habits in believing that it could treat the European Parliament like a group of midgets. But that’s wrong. ...

This agreement … breathes the spirit of the security ideology of the United States of America, but it does not breathe the spirit of the protection of the fundamental rights that we as European deputies must guarantee for the citizens of this continent.