Friday, 12 February 2010


The issue was the so-called SWIFT agreement between the EU governments and the USA. (If this sounds dull stay with me for another paragraph or two).

Initially made on a ‘temporary’ basis, it has given the American authorities access to the confidential bank records of millions of European citizens. Allegedly it helps identify transactions that might suggest terrorist sources of funding. But it’s outrageously one-sided – the Americans have been able to see our details but not the other way around. Critics of the agreement say that it does not provide proper protection for personal privacy, has done nothing in practice to combat terrorism, and that the information can be accessed anyway if selectively requested, just not on a general basis.

The lobbying to persuade MEPs to support it has been intense, with letters from Hilary Clinton and pleas from the Commission and the Council, although not all governments (Sweden for example) agree with it.

The Council, represented by Spain at present, got off to a bad start a month ago when they forgot that the new Lisbon Treaty gives the European Parliament a veto right over international treaties and failed to get the documents prepared in time. They have been struggling to regain authority ever since.

On Thursday, 11 February, the huge semi-circular Parliament chamber in Strasbourg was packed for the lunchtime votes. Fourth on the list was a single recommendation to reject the agreement tabled by my Dutch Liberal (VVD) colleague, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, who has been in charge of the brief.

The President (Speaker) invited the leader of the right-of-centre group, Joseph Daul, to move a motion of postponement. Daul stood up and argued that the Council had promised speedy action to address the concerns so we should cooperate by giving them more time. One half of the chamber applauded vigorously while the other half stayed quiet. The sound effect seemed to split the room in two. I noticed a few British Labour MEPs toeing the British government line by making clapping motions amidst their silent colleagues, but not many.

The leader of the British Tories, Timothy Kirkhope, got up to second the postponement, and the House again responded with claps on one side and silence on the other.

Jeanine got to her feet three spaces along the row from me and opposed the motion. Her party is to the right-of-centre but not on this issue. The Council had broken its promises time and again, she said, had shown no good faith, and had done nothing to address concerns about individual privacy. She finished with a killer sentence (I paraphrase): “We all know that if the President of the United States were to submit an agreement of this kind to Congress, one that gave details of American citizens to Europeans but not the other way around, it would be rejected OUT OF HAND.” This time our side of the House erupted with applause, and it was the turn of the right-of-centre to stay silent.

Cecilia Malmstrom rose from the European Commission bench. I have known her since my first day in the Parliament when she was elected as a young Swedish Liberal alongside me in 1999. As an MEP she was a great champion for issues of liberty. When Liberals joined the new right-of-centre government in Sweden three years ago she was appointed European Minister, and a couple of days ago she was confirmed as the new Swedish Commissioner, so she has worn all three EU hats. She informed the House of the official Commission position of support for the postponement.

The leader of the Socialists and Democrats, Martin Schulz, stood up on a point of order. “Is this REALLY a point of order?” queried the President. “I just wanted to ask the Commissioner,” said Martin innocently, “how her personal position had changed since a few weeks ago when she stood here as a Swedish Minister and opposed the agreement?” The House burst into laughter. A huge grin spread over Cecilia’s face. She didn’t get up but just gestured to the President, “how can I answer that?!”

The motion to postpone was put to a vote. The result came up on the giant display screen: lost by 15. The Liberal and Left burst into cheers.

The President took the main vote. With the ‘compromise’ now off the agenda MEPs voted by a big majority, 378 to 196, to reject the agreement.

The European Parliament had stood up for individual rights and for the first time ever had rejected an international treaty. Around me there was great excitement, and half the House rose to applaud Jeanine in a standing ovation.

If you haven’t heard much about what would normally have been expected to be a major news story there is a simple explanation. The Parliament was meeting in Strasbourg, while every journalist covering European affairs was in Brussels to follow the meeting of Prime Ministers as they considered the fate of Greece and the euro.

But behind the scenes, the governments of Europe know now that they can no longer take the European Parliament for granted. Adoption of the Lisbon Treaty has moved the goalposts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good for you.

The entire institution will soon be consigned to the dustbin of history where it belongs. The job it does can and will be done more effectively by national parliaments which are not an artifical construct based on indivdual states pooling soverignty.

What can be given will be taken away.

But keeping talking and wasting our taxes.