US plays Big Brother to EU

France is to promote a comprehensive transatlantic pact clearing the way for the unprecedented supply to the American authorities of private data on European citizens in support of the United States-driven campaign to combat terrorism and transnational crime.

The French government is expected to use its six-month presidency of the European Union, which started this week, to build on 18 months of confidential negotiations between Washington and Brussels aimed at clearing the complex legal obstacles to the exchange of personal information with the Americans.

The controversial proposed pact, a “framework agreement” on common data protection principles, is likely to enable the Americans to access the credit card histories, banking details and travel habits of Europeans, although senior officials in Brussels deny US reports that the Americans will also be able to snoop on the internet, browsing records of Europeans.

“Everybody’s keen on this and sees the benefit of it. The French are very keen to continue the work,” said a senior official in Brussels. “There’s all sorts of information stored on computers nowadays that may be of interest to law enforcement agencies.
If we reach agreement we may well contemplate turning it into a binding international agreement.”

The Americans want to seal the accord this year, while George Bush is still in the White House. But the European commission, running the negotiations along with EU member states, believes a quick deal is unlikely and that its conclusion will hinge on the energy with which the incoming US administration tackles the subject.

The negotiations, being conducted by a “high-level contact group” of European and US department of homeland security officials, have been led for the past 18 months by Stewart Baker on the US side and Jonathan Faull, a Briton responsible for justice and home affairs in the commission.

The US drive to gain access to the private data of Europeans is the latest episode in a systematic American campaign.

Under separate agreements being negotiated Washington is insisting on having armed guards on flights from Europe to the US, is introducing a new electronic travel authorisation system where travellers to the US would need to apply online for permission to fly before buying a ticket, and last year the EU yielded to American pressure to supply the US authorities with 19 pieces of information about passengers flying from Europe to the US.

Washington is using its visa-waiver system, making travel to the US visa-free for most European countries, to force EU states to comply with its demands.

“This is outrageous,” said Sophie In’t Veld, a Dutch Liberal MEP on the European Parliament’s civil liberties committee. “This is about fundamental rights. But it has all been done in secret by civil servants behind closed doors.”

The two sides are said to have reached agreement on about a dozen areas, but a big sticking point remains legal redress for Europeans who feel they are being victimised by US possession of information that may be incorrect or used incorrectly.

Poland threatens Sarkozy scheme
President Nicolas Sarkozy this week moved to head off a worsening crisis over the European Union’s gridlocked reforms after Poland joined the Czech Republic in defying Franco-German pressure for a quick fix of the stalemate caused by Ireland’s rejection of the Lisbon treaty, writes Ian Traynor in Paris.

Sarkozy launched his six-month presidency of the EU with a pledge to resolve the “institutional crisis” triggered by the Irish rebuff. He is to travel to Dublin and Prague to try to cajole the Irish into staging a second vote on the EU’s stalled reform blueprint and to push for speedier Czech approval of the plan, as well as intervening with President Lech Kaczynski of Poland, who this week announced he was suspending ratification of the treaty until Ireland decided what to do.

“For the time being the question of the treaty is pointless,” Kaczynski told the Warsaw newspaper Dziennik in a surprise announcement timed to coincide with the first day of the Sarkozy EU presidency.

The Franco-German strategy for dealing with the Irish rebuff is to get the other 26 EU countries to ratify the treaty as quickly as possible and to isolate the Irish. Of the 26, 19 have already ratified.

But the Polish and Czech resistance indicates that Sarkozy’s strategy of quarantining the Irish is unravelling and that the Irish contagion is spreading. The bombshell from Warsaw will test Sarkozy’s fabled talent for striking deals and complicate his ambitious EU agenda.

The Polish parliament has ratified the treaty, but Kaczynski, who signed the treaty in Lisbon last December, still has to endorse that ratification.

Sarkozy told journalists in the Elysée Palace that a main aim in the next six months was to rescue the Lisbon treaty—“to solve the institutional crisis, to find a solution despite the deadlock we’re currently facing”.

A senior Elysée source described Kaczynski as difficult. “He has never been a particularly easy partner to work with in building and shaping Europe,” he said. “I can’t imagine how the [Polish] president can go against the will of the Parliament. It’s odd.”

The French are telling the central Europeans, who are keen advocates of EU enlargement in the Balkans and into the former Soviet Union, that no new countries will join the EU unless the Lisbon treaty is adopted. “I will fight to ensure that EU membership does not exceed 27,” said the Elysée source.

The Germans, who master­minded the treaty last year as a response to the failed European constitution, are also desperate to salvage the package, which streamlines the way the EU functions and takes decisions, reduces the European commission and creates new posts of European president and foreign minister.

“The Czechs will be persuaded in the end. Otherwise there can be no more enlargement,” said Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister.

“If [the Czechs] dig in their heels, they will start their presidency [in January] in great isolation,” said the Elysée source.

But the central Europeans are furious about what they perceive to be bullying by the French and the Germans. President Vaclav Klaus in Prague, the EU’s biggest Eurosceptic, has described the treaty as dead and the Czech upper house has parked the treaty in the country’s supreme court.

“We’re not blocking anything,” said Alexandr Vondra, the Czech deputy prime minister, calling for an end to the mudslinging that has followed the Irish rejection.

Despite the mounting problems, Sarkozy is planning a political fix in the hope that the Irish can be cajoled into running a second referendum. The senior French source said the aim was to “have an escape hatch” prepared by an EU summit in October and to sway the Irish by offering them “political commitments” which would probably focus on guaranteeing the Irish a permanent seat in the European commission.—

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