Europe preps for battle with U.S. over traveler data

Opposition is hardening in renegogiation over the transfer of European air passenger data

The European Parliament has delayed a vote on how to react to the U.S.' growing appetite for personal information about European citizens, in order to intensify its opposition.

The delay follows a debate Wednesday evening in which the two other European Union lawmaking institutions both hardened their positions on the sensitive issue.

The groups are drawing up a strategy for how to renegotiate an agreement, over which they have been divided, with the U.S. over the transfer of European air passenger data.

The Parliament opposed the original agreement reached in 2004 to share the data -- 34 facts about every European entering or transiting through America by air, including credit card details and information about how and where a plane ticket was purchased.

Even though the European Commission -- the E.U.'s executive branch -- and national governments in the 27 E.U. countries support strict European data protection laws, they negotiated an exemption from the rules in order to allow the U.S. to better protect itself from potential terrorist attacks.

The European Parliament took the Commission and the Council of Ministers to the European Court of Justice over the passenger data agreement and forced a re-drafting of the law late last year.

This agreement expires at the end of July and the E.U. will soon have to renegotiate the deal.

While the Parliament is unlikely now to call for the complete scrapping of the agreement, it may well demand a shorter list of categories of data to be handed over. It may also demand that only U.S. immigration officials be granted access to the information.

In a debate at the European Parliament Wednesday, Germany’s deputy foreign minister, Guenther Gloser warned that negotiations with the U.S. will be “tortuous.” Germany holds the six-month rotating presidency of the 27-nation bloc.

The European commissioner in charge of justice and home affairs issues, Franco Frattini told Parliamentarians that he has demanded an explanation from his counterparts in Washington D.C. about an apparent misuse of Europeans’ data that flouts both the original passenger rights' agreement as well as its replacement agreed last year.

Frattini's concerns focus on the U.S. Automated Targeting System, which has been assessing millions of people since 2002. Some members of the U.S. Congress and privacy advocates believe the program is even illegal under the more lax U.S. data protection laws.

"The right to privacy for me is nonnegotiable. It has to be respected," Frattini told the parliamentarians.

Frattini's and Gloser’s speeches took many members of the Parliament by surprise, according to one Parliament official actively involved in civil liberties issues.

"The MEPs were due to vote on an agreed position regarding the new round of negotiations with the U.S. today, but they have agreed to postpone the vote until the next plenary session in Strasbourg," she said, asking not to be named. The next plenary session is Feb. 12-15.

"There is a mixture of joy and skepticism among the parliamentarians after hearing the strong language expressed in defense of Europeans rights to privacy," she said. "It would seem that the Commission and the Council of Ministers are both coming around to the Parliament's way of thinking on this urgent issue."

The text is likely to take an even stronger line as a result of the delay, she said.

The U.S. has threatened to fine airlines that fail to hand over the records, and to strip them of their landing rights in the U.S. Without any agreement, the airlines will be put in a difficult position: punished if they don't hand over the information, or sued for breaching European data protection laws if they do.

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