Euro Parliament balks at US passenger data pact

In a bid to protect Europeans’ rights to privacy, the European Parliament Wednesday voted by 276 to 260 in favor of referring a draft agreement between the European Commission — the European Union’s (E.U.’s) executive branch — and the U.S. on air passenger data to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

The European Court of Justice has the power to declare that the yet-to-be ratified agreement contravenes E.U. law.

The agreement, struck last December after drawn out negotiations, would allow U.S. customs officials to collect 34 different pieces of information about air passengers before they board a plane to the U.S.

It also would permit U.S. customs to hold onto the information for three and a half years and share it with other government agencies to help them combat terrorism or other serious crimes.

“We regret the European Parliament ‘s decision to refer the agreement to the European Court of Justice,” said a U.S. government official in Europe, speaking on condition of anonymity. “From our perspective the agreement showed the U.S. and the European Union can work together. We stand by the agreement of December.”

The draft agreement has yet to be approved by the Commission, and according to the commissioner in charge of international relations, Chris Patten, there remain some differences in interpretation of the agreement by both sides.

Patten told the European Parliament Wednesday that the Commission is concerned about the U.S. customs officials passing the data on to other U.S. government agencies, such as the Central Intelligence Agency or the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“We still need some assurances about this,” said Diego de Ojeda, Patten’s spokesman, adding that the dialog with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is ongoing. “If we are satisfied they have met our concerns we could take a formal decision to approve the agreement. If the U.S. doesn’t do so we may have to take a fresh look at the issue,” said de Ojeda.

He said the Parliament’s decision to go to Court Wednesday is unfortunate. “It is a pity. We hoped the Parliament would understand our arguments in favor of signing this agreement.”

The European Parliament objected to the agreement throughout the negotiating period. Members of Parliament argued all along that to agree to the U.S. demands would compromise the E.U.’s stricter data protection rules.

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