Giving data to U.S. gets rebuke for EU

Court says union erred in issuing facts about travelers

May 31, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PARIS --The European Union's highest court ruled yesterday that the EU had overstepped its authority by agreeing to give the United States personal details about airline passengers on flights to America in an effort to fight terrorism.

The decision will force the two sides to renegotiate the deal at a time of heightened concerns about possible infringements of civil liberties by the Bush administration in its campaign against terrorism, and the extent to which European governments have cooperated.

The ruling gave the two sides four months to approve a new agreement, and American officials expressed optimism that one could be reached. But without an agreement, the United States could take punitive action, in theory even denying landing rights to airlines that withhold the information. That could cause major disruptions in trans-Atlantic air travel, which accounts for nearly half of all foreign air travel to the United States.

The European Court of Justice, based in Luxembourg, found that the European Commission and the European Council lacked the authority to make the deal, which was reached in May 2004. Specifically, the court said that passenger records are collected by airlines for their own commercial use, so the European Union could not legally agree to provide them to American authorities, even for public security or law enforcement.

The agreement, which took 18 months to negotiate and was to have lasted through 2007, gave American authorities access to 34 categories of information about passengers on all flights that originate from the 25 nations in the Union. The data was to have been made available as passengers boarded in Europe.

But the European Parliament challenged the agreement in court on two points: The Parliament was not consulted when the accord was reached, under intense pressure from the Bush administration, and it objected to the extent of personal data to be turned over - including names, addresses, phone numbers, itineraries and payment information, including credit card numbers.

Privacy advocates said the agreement violated civil rights, but the United States said the information helped identify the patterns of suspicious travelers. The court did not rule on the privacy question, focusing instead on the scope of European Union's authority.

"The European Court is saying yes, the European Parliament was right, that the data transfer agreement is illegal," said Graham Watson, a British member of the Parliament and chairman of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. "What will now be needed is some pretty tough talking to get a new agreement in which our concerns about privacy are properly addressed."

In Washington, Jarrod Agen, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said that privacy was not really the issue, because his department could obtain the same information by questioning the passengers on arrival. But, he added, security would be strengthened by having the information provided in advance.

For now, he said, "the planes will continue to fly and the security data will continue to be exchanged. There won't be any lowering of the data protection standards or effect on passengers or disruption to air traffic in the near term."

In the past, the United States has warned that European airlines could be fined or lose U.S. landing rights if they failed to make such data available. But a U.S. official in Brussels, Belgium, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter, said that Washington would seek a diplomatic arrangement with the European Union that respects the court's ruling without disrupting air travel.

A spokesman for the European Commission, Johannes Laitenberger, told reporters in Brussels that the European Union remained "committed to the fight against terrorism while respecting fundamental human rights such as the right to privacy."

Europeans are by far the largest single class of visitors to the United States.

In 2004, the most recent year available, 9.6 million European Union citizens entered the United States, according to a Department of Commerce survey of air travelers.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.