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European Parliament votes to hold inquiry into US spying

DIGITAL CAMERA

 By Simon Davies

The full plenary of the European Parliament today opened a Pandora’s Box by voting to hold a full inquiry into US surveillance programmes, including the bugging of EU premises. The resolution was endorsed by group leaders and was approved by 483 votes to 98 with 65 abstentions.

Importantly, Parliament also expressed grave concern about allegations that similar surveillance programmes are run by several EU member states

The Parliaments Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee (LIBE) will be responsible for the investigation and must present its findings by the end of this year.

In the resolution, MEPs expressed serious concern over PRISM and other surveillance programmes, strongly condemned spying on EU representations and called on US authorities to provide them with full information on these allegations without further delay.

Importantly, Parliament also expressed grave concern about allegations that similar surveillance programmes are run by several EU member states, such as the UK, Sweden, The Netherlands, Germany and Poland. It urged them to examine whether those programmes are compatible with EU law.

This element of the inquiry could open up a number of sensitive Signals Intelligence relationships between Europe and the US – particularly the close operational partnership enjoyed by the US, Germany and the UK. However the wording of the resolution appears to be ambiguous about whether the activities of EU member states are subject to the same level of inquiry as US programs.

Until earlier this week the prospects for a full EP inquiry appeared to be fading, in view of the 2014 elections. This barrier appears to have been overcome by truncating the inquiry time frame to an almost unprecedented extent. LIBE will be under considerable pressure to meet the deadline – particularly as it is already stretched thin because of data protection reform which has already suffered substantial delays.

The inquiry will gather information and evidence from both US and EU sources. It will assess the impact of the alleged surveillance activities on EU citizens’ right to privacy and data protection, freedom of expression, the presumption of innocence and the right to an effective remedy.

The inquiry will assess the impact of the alleged surveillance activities on EU citizens’ right to privacy and data protection, freedom of expression, the presumption of innocence and the right to an effective remedy.

At this stage the specific format of the inquiry appears to be undecided. Specific resources will be requested next week.

MEPs involved in the inquiry will table recommendations to prevent similar cases in future and step up IT security in the EU institutions, bodies and agencies.

MEPs stressed the need for “procedures allowing whistleblowers to unveil serious violations of fundamental rights” and the importance of providing such people with the protection they need, including at international level.

And in a perhaps surprisingly strong diplomatic strategy MEPs also called on the European Commission, the Council of Ministers and EU countries to consider possible recourse to all levers at their disposal in negotiations with the US, including suspending the current air passenger and bank data deals (Passenger Name Record and Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme, respectively). The resolution also singles out the US Safe Harbour programme, which purports to offer protection to EU consumers, arguing that the programme requires review in light of recent revelations.

EU data protection standards should not be undermined as a result of the EU-US trade deal, warned the resolution, adding that it would be “unfortunate” if EU-US trade talks were to be affected by such allegations.

Parliament called on EU countries to speed up their work on data protection reforms and urged the Commission and US authorities to resume negotiations on the data protection agreement without delay. The final deal must ensure that EU citizens’ access to the US judicial system is equal to that enjoyed by US citizens.