American authorities access to banks data: challenges…and perspectives

The EU parliamentary Committee on Civil Liberties provoked a certain sensation by deciding on the 4 February to suggest to the European Parliament plenary not to conclude the interim agreement which allows the Treasury Department of The United States of America to access financial data processed by SWIFT (already published in this blog).

What the press has not explained is that this negative vote does not end the transatlantic cooperation in this domain. In fact, the second paragraph of the Recommendation invites the Commission and the Council to submit proposals complying with the new legal framework established by the Treaty of Lisbon.

Indeed, a successful conclusion of the agreement signed by the Council seems to be too shy and too advanced at the same time.

Too shy since the data protection legislation applied will remain that of the Member State where the data are stored (the Netherlands) or that of the State controlling SWIFT (Belgium). Furthermore, the authority verifying the admissibility of the request will also belong to one of these two countries despite the participation of the European Union.

The transatlantic legal framework will be the Agreement on Mutual Legal Assistance between the European Union and the United States of America, or if the conclusions will not be ratified, the bilateral agreements EU-Netherlands and EU-Belgium.

As the European Parliament’s rapporteur points out the type of access to financial data as foreseen by the TFTP is not admissible on the basis of the ordinary procedures applied in case of judicial cooperation in criminal matters. In this respect there is a risk to exceed the scope of the agreement by giving for granted the existence of a clarity in the field of data protection as well as police and judicial cooperation which does not exist not even between the Member States of the European Union.

In this regard, suffice to say that the European Union does not have a comprehensive legal framework to adequately face internal security challenges related to data protection in the field of security and police and judicial cooperation despite the numerous requests made by the European Parliament. This kind of solidarity has started with Schengen although it does not involve all the Member States.

 At this stage it is inevitable to recall the old saying “nemo plus juris transferre potest quam ipse habet”, i.e. the European Union cannot transfer more powers of what itself has.

Indeed, the European Union has given to the United States all it could on the basis of the current legislation on the Agreement on mutual legal assistance between the European Union and the United States of America concluded in Washington on 28 October 2009.

The Agreement foresees:

  •  The possibility to access banks’ data of natural or legal persons provided the latter are identified (see article 4 of the Treaty on Mutual Legal Assistance) on the basis of the European legislation in this domain (Third Directive on Money Laundering and Financial Information Regulation)
  • The possibility to extradite individuals to the United States applying the same conditions of the European Arrest Warrant
  • the possibility to create common investigation teams (on the basis of European norms concerning Europol and the Convention on Criminal Assistance).

This said, it is still technically feasible to make the transatlantic cooperation even more ambitious and make sure that the jurisprudence produced by international agreements may be translated in internal legislative measures.

To reach this goal it will then be necessary to put forward a series of simultaneous political operations which have been impossible to develop before.

Now, the first question concerns whether the American pressure will convince Member States to finally set up the necessary legal framework.

Secondly and more significantly, it is necessary to understand whether the requests put forward by the United States are compatible with the Treaty of Lisbon and the Charter on Fundamental Rights.

Thirdly, it is necessary to identify which European authority will be responsible for the Member States. For instance, one possibility to assess will be whether it would be possible to extend Eurojust and/or Europol’s powers instead of that of Dutch and Belgian authorities, ensuring at the same time loyal cooperation between the Member States.

Moreover, challenges do not only arise on this part of the Atlantic. The American negotiator is facing other equally demanding questions. For example, in case the authority in charge of the conclusions of the Agreement remains the Administration it will not be possible to seal an “executive agreement” since -by definition- it cannot modify the legal status of the American and European citizens.

What is more, an executive agreement will hardly secure the respect of those guarantees which the Charter requires avoiding hazardous appeals in front of the European and National Courts (see Karlsruhe …).

To do that it would be necessary, as in the case of police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters to pass the Congress and obtain two-thirds of the votes in the Senate. Once again, as it is often the case during the challenging evolution of the European Union, with fantasy and mutual respect it will be maybe possible to build a Transatlantic area of freedom, security and justice to which the Stockholm Programme and the inter-ministerial declaration referred on 28 October.

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