Sarah Ludford MEP writes… Deal on transfer of passenger data to the US was least worst option

The transfer to the US of EU travellers’ Passenger Name Record (PNR) data – the information we give the airline for booking purposes – has been happening for over a decade. MEPs including me have been battling since then to control the terms on which that transfer takes place in order to build in adequate data protection, and we have secured considerable improvements.

It is important to recall that the US has a sovereign right to impose whatever conditions it wishes on airlines and passengers entering its territory and to refuse entry, or landing rights to planes, if those conditions are not met. The transfer of PNR data would therefore continue whether there was any EU legal basis or not, since airlines are obliged under US law to transmit it to the US authorities.

In a controversial vote, MEPs recently approved by a considerable majority (409 in favour, 226 against with 33 abstentions) a new EU-US PNR agreement to replace the existing 2007 one which has never been ratified but which has applied provisionally. I have been much involved in the issue as a member (since 1999) of the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties committee and also as Vice-Chair of the delegation to the US, and have sought to facilitate transatlantic travel with the least possible invasion of privacy.

I was one of the nearly one-third of ALDE group MEPs who voted in favour of the new agreement since it imposes legal protections which would otherwise be absent. I would much rather PNR data was not made available, but as MEP for London I have a high number of constituents who fly occasionally or even regularly to the United States and am very conscious of the potential disruption without an agreement. An individual can of course decide not to make the trip.

I voted yes because, while readily acknowledging that the new deal does not meet all the demands of MEPs, it provides better safeguards than the existing 2007 agreement and I could not see how we were going to get a better bargain in any of the alternative scenarios. I knew a rejection would create uncertainty or even less acceptable terms.

In the immediate aftermath (of a rejection) it would mean falling back on the worse 2007 agreement that MEPs declined to consent to, which could open airlines to legal challenge on grounds of violation of EU data protection laws, and possible flight disruption. Alternatively it would leave the field open to a plethora of bilateral accords with Member States that the EU would be unable to control and that would most likely be weaker because of the United States’ ability to divide and rule.

There is certainly no political will in the US to go back to the drawing board and renegotiate the agreement for what they see as the fifth time. Even if President Obama had any such willingness, Congress would not let him do so since it has been sold as essential to counter-terrorism and security operations. This is, after all, election year and Romney could just win. Hoping for better negotiating conditions was not a realistic strategy.

Approval of this EU agreement gives us a platform on which to build a better one. Whether the 2007 agreement continued to apply or the US got bilateral deals with Member States, the safeguards would have been weaker and MEPs could have lost the chance to be involved at all. The European Parliament will now exercise monitoring and call for reviews, and we have in Cecilia Malmstrom, a Liberal Home Affairs Commissioner, whose pledge to keep an eagle eye on US respect for safeguards is credible.

I would just ask those MEPs who voted against the new agreement, or other critics, to explain what alternative they envisaged. So far I have not heard a credible one.

* Sarah Ludford is London MEP and the Liberal Democrat European spokeswoman on justice & human rights. She is a leading member of the European Parliament's civil liberties, justice & home affairs committee.

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5 Comments

  • Paul Murray 30th Apr '12 - 4:24pm

    It’s their country and if they want to make it hard to get in to the USA then they are entirely within their rights to do so.

    In 2006 I was travelling to the USA on business. When I was checking in at Heathrow there was one person in front of me. He was a young man who was British and clearly of Asian ethnic origin. It turned out he was also a Muslim and the PA to a highly successful businessman who is a household name. He was told that there was “a problem” with his passport and he would need to wait.

    Oddly enough I was then told the same thing. This has never happened to me before or since. The young man apologized and said that this always happened to him and that “usually” the person behind him was also pulled over -presumably to make it look less like this was racial profiling.

    In another incident a work colleague from the UK travelling to the USA was taken to a room at JFK and told that unless he signed a form saying that he was a Pakistani national, he would be refused admittance to the USA. This was in spite of his UK passport and the fact that he was born and raised in Hemel Hempstead. His parents were born in Pakistan.

    As I say, it’s their country and they can do what they like. That doesn’t mean we have to travel there.

  • jenny barnes 1st May '12 - 9:30am

    USA – home of the free ?
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2012/apr/30/laissez-faire-with-strip-searches-liberalism

    so don’t hire a car while you’re there. Or have brown skin.

  • Richard Dean 2nd May '12 - 12:12am

    I don’t have a choice – I have to go there, or through there, on business. But the information I give the airline for booking purposes is basically name, passport details, and cedit card details. I wouldn’t have thought that name and passport details would give rise to issues, and I would expect immigration and security people to.justifiably want it I even want them to want it, because I don’t want to sit next to a terrorist who will blow me up.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passenger_name_record says there lots of other data can transferred too, including home and work address, telephone number, e-mail address, IP address if booked online, and emergency contacts. Some of this does seem unnecessary, but not necessarily sinister. Is this what the deal is about?

  • Margaret Beith 2nd May '12 - 10:11am

    I found the US customs a bit too aggressive on our last visit and was very proud of my husband for standing up to them. It has put us off returning and I’m not happy about them knowing what i do in Europe!

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