EU interior ministers want to negotiate a new agreement with the US on bank data transfers after the European Parliament struck down an interim deal earlier this month, blocking American authorities from tracking down terrorism funding via Europe.
"We want to have an agreement with the US. We see this as being a fundamental element of our co-operation in attempts to combat international terrorism," Spanish interior minister Alfredo Rubalcaba said during a press conference on Thursday (25 February).
He added that from the contacts they had so far with the American side, Washington seemed to be in favour of a new agreement with the EU as a whole.
Ahead of the parliament's negative vote on 11 February, the US had indicated that it could opt for bilateral deals with Belgium and Netherlands – the countries that host the data bases of the main company facilitating international bank transfers: the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (Swift).
This path is seen as offering even less data protection guarantees than an EU-wide agreement, which requires the approval of the European Parliament.
"There were some discussions about bilateral agreements, but the Council [of Ministers, representing the member states] is quite clear: We want something for Europe as a whole, an agreement tbat includes restrictions and allays concerns of the European Parliament," Mr Rubalcaba stressed.
When asked if the Belgian and Dutch minister promised not to strike bilateral deals with the US, the Spanish official replied that they "made clear statements in favour of an EU agreement" – a view that was unanimous among the bloc's ministers.
EU diplomats however point to the fact the bilateral option is not off the table, given the time pressure and the "security gap" created by the rejection of the interim deal.
A new deal – if the US agrees to go through the process again – is not expected to be struck before autumn this year. "And the problem is that the parliament can still say 'no' in the end, despite being informed all along," one EU official told this website.
The temporary agreement negotiated last year by the Swedish EU presidency and briefly enacted from 1 to 11 February until the parliament struck it down, was aimed at keeping the data flow going, as Swift reconfigured its databases on 1 January so that the one on US soil would no longer mirror European data.
The reconfiguration was prompted by a media scandal back in 2006 when it emerged that Swift was allowing US authorities to access its American database as part of the "War on Terror" following the attacks on New York and Washington of 11 September 2001.
Apart from data protection issues, the interim agreement was also a victim of the power struggle between the EU's three bodies once the new legal framework came into force on 1 December 2009.
The European Parliament argued that it had been sidelined during negotiations on the interim agreement last year and that the EU executive and the Council of Ministers rushed to sign the deal on 30 November, just one day before the Lisbon Treaty was enacted, granting lawmakers a bigger say on the matter.
Meanwhile, the commission is currently drafting a negotiating mandate on behalf of the EU, which would include some of the concerns expressed by MEPs, such as the fact that data is transmitted in bulk, not in individual cases.
"The interim agreement was not perfect, we'll come up with something better," home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said during the same press conference, while pledging to keep the parliament informed from the very beginning and throughout the whole process.