EU gears up for fight over passenger data

EP members criticize deal that gives U.S. government greater access to airline passenger info

European Union parliamentarians are gearing up for a fight over data privacy, after justice ministers from the 25 countries in the E.U., together with the European Commission, signed a new temporary agreement to pass over airline passenger data to American authorities last week.

Debating the agreement late Wednesday, many members of the European Parliament criticized the deal, which grants U.S. government agencies greater access to the passenger name record information than under a previous agreement that was deemed illegal by the European Court of Justice in May.

"The European Union has completely capitulated to U.S. demands on this issue," Sylvia Kaufmann, a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) with the European United Left/Nordic Green Left alliance.

"The fact that the CIA, an agency whose activities, torturing and kidnapping, this house is investigating in a special committee, will have access to passenger data is the real scandal, especially when one considers that the right of redress held by U.S. citizens is not extended to E.U. citizens," she added.

A temporary agreement was essential to avoid chaos for Europe's airlines. The Court of Justice said in May that the old agreement would become legally void at the end of September. Without a replacement, airlines could have been sued in Europe if they handed over private data including names, addresses and credit card details. On the other hand, if they withheld that same information from the U.S. authorities, they could be fined or lose landing rights in the U.S.

The new temporary agreement is valid until July 2007 and will have to be replaced by a longer-term agreement. But some MEPs argued Tuesday that Europe's ability to negotiate a long-term deal that better protects passenger data has been hampered by the Commission and the justice ministers' enthusiasm for the temporary deal reached last week.

"Having now signaled to the whole world their premature satisfaction (with the temporary agreement), with what negotiating clout and what specific European demands for improvements will they be approaching the negotiations for the conclusion of a final Agreement with their U.S. counterparts in a few months' time?" asked Stavros Lambrinidis, a Greek socialist and the vice chairman of the Parliament's civil liberties committee.

Franco Frattini, the European Commissioner in charge of justice issues, criticized Parliamentarians for being anti-American. "It's terrorism that is the problem, not the United States of America," he said.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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