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EU-US Accord on SWIFT Data Hits Political Snag

Some of Europe's largest countries are backing away from a controversial draft agreement being negotiated with the U.S. that would allow that country's antiterrorism agencies access to the personal financial data of millions of European citizens, it emerged Friday.

Sweden, which holds the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union, has negotiated an interim accord between the U.S. government and the E.U. that would allow a wide range of data including bank account numbers, addresses and ID numbers to be scrutinized by U.S. counterterrorism authorities.

Germany, France, Austria and Finland have expressed serious concerns that the initial agreement from September would be too intrusive. The data comes from the SWIFT banking network that handles millions of international transactions every day.

Their concerns echo feelings expressed by some European Parliamentarians, who feel they have been bypassed in the negotiations.

Existing E.U. law excludes the parliament from debates on justice-related issues but that will change when the Lisbon Treaty goes into effect next month.

The Swedish presidency acknowledged the text of the E.U.-U.S. agreement has yet to be finalized. "Some countries have reservations, we are in constant negotiations, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed," said Swedish government spokesman Nils Hanninger in a telephone interview Friday.

He denied that the aim was to exclude the European Parliament from the process, pointing out that the temporary agreement being negotiated would have a maximum duration of one year, and that as soon as the temporary agreement is signed the negotiations for a permanent accord would begin.

Nevertheless, Germany's justice minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said she was against a deal that allowed large quantities of data to be transferred without "legal protection provisions." Her comments appeared in German daily newspaper, the Berliner Zeitung on Thursday.

The question of SWIFT first arose in 2006 following an article in The New York Times that revealed that the U.S. authorities were accessing data held by the Belgium-based financial network on European citizens without the knowledge of the European authorities.

Following pressure by the European Parliament and some E.U. member states, certain guarantees regarding privacy were given and the U.S. undertook to ensure that the data collected was used purely for antiterrorism purposes.

The issue erupted again this summer when SWIFT announced it was switching the location of its database to the Netherlands. At the time MEPs asked the Commission for information about the changed circumstances and their implications. Many MEPs feel that request was ignored, and they used the plenary session of Parliament in September to voice their frustration.

SWIFT serves as a gatekeeper of financial transactions, providing electronic instructions on how to transfer money among 7,800 financial institutions worldwide. Based in Belgium, it is owned by more than 2,000 financial organizations, including almost all major commercial banks. Brokerage houses, fund managers and stock exchanges also use its services.

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