Last week the European Parliament, following a hearing earlier in the month in Brussels at which we testified, held a three-hour plenary debate in Strasbourg on proposals to approve access by the US Department of Homeland Security to European interbank transfer (SWIFT) and airline reservation (Passenger Name Record, PNR) data.
The current “provisional” agreement to authorize blanket access by the DHS to PNRs for trans-Atlantic flights was executed by the Council of the EU over the objections of Parliament, but the changes in the structure of the EU brought about by the Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force in December 2009, now give the EP veto power over its continuation in force, or over any new agreement.
The transcript of the plenary session is posted only in the language in which speeches were delivered. But if the Europarl website recognizes your browser and media player, you can click the link under the thumbnail portrait of each speaker for an archived video clip with the the full choice of 23 languages — the most elaborate simultaneous translation operation in any chamber in the world — that were provided to those in attendance in the Hémicyle during the session.
The precautionary closure of most European airspace in response to the volcanic ash cloud kept some MEPs from reaching Strasbourg. As a result, voting on this and all other issues was postponed until next week, May 5-6, in Brussels.
But despite the deferral of voting, the debate was an important manifestation of the climate of opinion among the 736 directly-elected representatives of more than 500 million European citizens.
Several things were noteworthy in the plenary discussion:
There was an unusual consensus in opposition to the proposal originally put forward by the European Commission, which would have rubber-stamped the current provisional agreement and all its flaws. All seven major groups (alliances of parties) across the political spectrum endorsed the proposal put forward by ALDE (liberal) rapporteur MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld, which would withhold Parliamentary approval for the current and proposed deal, and set new conditions for any PNR agreement. No one, even the most extreme back-benchers or unaffiliated members, spoke in favor of the current agreement.
Most of the previous discussion of the PNR question by EU institutions has framed it as a narrow issue of privacy or “data protection”. But since it is now clear — as even the representatives of the Council acknowledged at the hearing, in the civil liberties (LIBE) committee, and in plenary — that the current provisional agreement is unacceptable to Parliament, and will at minimum have to be renegotiated to satisfy Parliament’s new conditions, this was the opportunity MEPs have been waiting for to broaden the terms of reference for the negotiations.
In plenary, it was evident that MEPs are concerned about more than just privacy. Substantive and procedural due process and judicial review, not just data protection, will be required before they approve any new agreement.
MEP Jon Philipp Albrecht (shadow rapporteur for the Green group) compared the DHS systems that make “fly/no-fly” decisions in whole or in part on the basis of PNR-based judgments about your likeliness to commit future acts of terrorism to the pre-crime police in the film “Minority Report” — and their fallibility.
Swedish MEP Eva-Britt Svensson (GUE/NGL Group), known as one of the leading feminists and human rights campaigners in the EP, reminded the chamber of what had been said on behalf of the Council’s presidency to open the previous day’s discussion of the volcanic ash and aviation crisis: “Air transport … affects .. our citizens’ right to freedom of movement, which is a fundamental right.” Svensson continued:
We should bear that in mind today when we talk about PNR, because the use of Passenger Name Records sometimes determines who has the right to fly and who does not have the right to fly, and that of course does have an affect on people’s human rights, not just freedom of movement but also certain signed international conventions on our citizens’ rights. The goal that the EU has on freedom of movement is to get rid of the EU’s internal borders and to imporve freedom of movement. That’s happening for certain groups of people, but not for refugee and asylum seekers and so on, who are very often women and children. Other people are deciding whether they have the right to fly or not, and that can be sometimes a question of life or death for these people. So it’s very important that we in the European Parliament and the European Commission take a very close look at how PNR records are going to be used, because what we are talking about here is freedom of movement under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In the face of this Parliamentary resolve to uphold both international treaty obligations and the rights of EU citizens, the US government is continuing its heavy-handed lobbying (imagine how a similar effort by a foreign government to lobby Congress would be received) with Vice-President Biden heading to Brussels next week for a “major address” to the European Parliament on the day of the PNR vote.
Meanwhile, the DHS continues to pursue its policy laundering “Plan B” to preempt any opposition by the EU or individual countries by getting ICAO to adopt a PNR-access mandate, virtaul strip-search machines, etc. as international aviation “security standards”. Since the start of the year, Secretary of Homeland Security Napolitano has made ICAO one of her highest priorities, personally traveling to ICAO and IATA headquarters in Geneva in January and to ICAO regional aviation security meetings in Mexico in February, in Tokyo in March, and this month in Abuja, Nigeria — more international travel on this issue alone than any of her predecessors did in any comparable period of time for all issues combined.