European home affairs ministers are today set to approve a transatlantic deal that will see them turn reams of private banking data over to US intelligence.
The expected approval signals a remarkable diplomatic victory for Washington. The European Commission and the US had previously clashed over the Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme (TFTP).
TFTP began in secret following the 9/11 terror attacks. It allows US authorities to monitor SWIFT, the Belgian company that acts as clearing house for millions of daily transactions between European banks.
When the arrangement was exposed in 2006, it caused consternation among European privacy officials.
US counter-terrorism authorities had been able to access the data because because a copy is stored under their jurisdiction, at SWIFT's conveniently-located Virginia datacentre. Now, however, the firm plans to move all data on American soil to Switzerland, prompting strong pressure from Washington for the EU to ensure continued access.
SWIFT's withdrawal of data from the US was planned in response to the barrage of criticism it faced when TFTP was revealed. The EU's expected new deal renders the move pointless.
In a tacit admission that European intelligence agencies are incapable of keeping an eye out for suspicious transactions, today the European Council of Ministers planned to comply with US demands.
"The truth is that we in Europe don’t have the technical ability to interpret this stuff," an EU official told the Finanical Times earlier this month.
"We rely on the Americans to process it and pass it on as intelligence."
There is no reciprocal agreement for European intelligence agencies to mine US banking data.
Justice minister Lord Bach, attending the meeting for the UK, said: "This agreement is needed because of a restructuring of SWIFT. The UK supports the Council decision subject to the views of the Parliamentary scrutiny committees."
Westminster committees scrutinise Council decisions, but cannot block them. There will be no scrutiny of the decision by the European Parliament; perhaps coincidentally, the Lisbon Treaty comes into force tomorrow. It would have granted MEPs the power to examine TFTP, which has not been published prior to agreement.
Germany planned to abstain from today's vote over privacy concerns. The draft deal reportedly lowered the criteria for data to be handed over and allowed US authorities to export European banking data to third parties. ®