Monday, May 17, 2004

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union yesterday approved an antiterrorism deal with Washington for sharing passenger data on flights to the United States, rejecting warnings about potential violations of privacy rights.

EU foreign ministers approved the deal hours after it was adopted by the European Commission, Europe’s executive body, which brushed aside objections from the European Parliament. A signing ceremony was expected in Washington next week.

The commission said the deal will give “adequate protection” to passengers from the 25-nation European Union as well as to European airlines, which faced the prospect of being fined on both sides of the Atlantic.

“We came up with a balanced solution, which the member states have supported,” said EU Internal Market Commissioner Frits Bolkestein.

Not acting now would have meant “legal uncertainty and the potential withdrawal of U.S. commitments to protect the data transferred — in other words chaos for EU passengers and airlines,” he said.

The data in question included credit-card numbers and contact information. “Sensitive” items, such as meal requests, which could indicate a passenger’s race or religion, will either not be transferred or will be “filtered and deleted by U.S. authorities,” Mr. Bolkestein said.

The European Parliament voted narrowly last month to challenge the deal at the European Court of Justice, arguing it violated EU law by giving U.S. Customs access to personal information without sufficient privacy protections.

But that complaint was voided by yesterday’s action. Lawmakers who voted against the pact accused EU ministers of displaying “breathtaking arrogance” and “open disdain” for the will of parliament.

Dutch lawmaker Johanna Boogerd-Quaak, who led the opposition, promised to seek a new vote when the assembly reconvenes in July. “One way or the other, this issue will end up before the European Court of Justice,” she said.

While EU governments can legally ignore the parliament’s nonbinding opinion in matters such as this, a negative ruling by the EU high court could force them to change or scrap the transfer deal.

EU spokesman Jonathan Todd said governments decided to go ahead now because of the improvements the agreement would bring.

“If there wasn’t any international agreement with the United States on this, there would no longer be any reason for the United States to respect the commitments we negotiated with them,” he said.

Interim measures in place for the past year provide Washington with even more passenger information than under the proposed permanent agreement.

The EU head office and U.S. officials say the data collected under the deal would only be used to fight terrorism and other serious “transnational” crimes.

They say the deal limits the amount of data on passengers that can be collected, restricts who can see the data and calls for it to be stored no longer than 3 years. The European Union would be “systematically notified” if any data is shared with other countries.

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