A divided Europe wants to protect its personal data wanted by the US
The Czech Republic has signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the United States on the exchange of data information from passengers on transatlantic flights : an agreement that illustrates once again that few countries make a case for data protection.
« A man who isn’t hungry does not hear a man who is » It was in this straightforward manner that the Czech minister of the interior, Ivan Langer, explained what motivated his country to sign the MOU with the United States. To be clear Prague wants its nationals to benefit from a visa waiver when going to the US. The Czech republic and 11 other EU countries, for the most part those who joined in 2004, don’t benefit from the American visa waiver programme. Nationals from these 12 countries therefore need a visa to cross the Atlantic, unlike the 15 other members of the EU. They had hoped after joining, the Union would help them negotiate with Washington a similar exemption. But faced with a lack of concrete progress and tired of waiting, the Czechs decided to act alone.
All are party to a memorandum of understanding sent last week by the United States to European capitals : in the text, the Americans put forward new demands in the name of security on transatlantic flights : the obligation to obtain an electronic permission to fly before boarding ; air marshals, transmission of information on passengers of flights which fly over American soil and on people who accompany minors or the sick even if they are not travelling themselves, readmission of former citizens or nationals from third countries ; transmission of information on all lost or stolen passports...
For the Americans these measures reinforce their capacity to fight terrorism ; for many Europeans they are « unacceptable’, “out of place” and “ go too far”. These demands are on top of those already agreed under the framework of the EU US agreement known as Passenger Name Record, signed in July 2007 ; an extremely controversial agreement because it does not offer enough guarantees for data protection. In private, those responsible in the EU admit that once in the US they will lose track of this data. How then to ensure that the data will be used for the ends it was collected, that it will not be given to other agencies or to other countries or that it will be destroyed after a certain period ? The Czech Republic, viewed from the perspective of a derogation for visas, cedes much in the new American demands without obtaining any extra guarantees in exchange. The text of the memorandum is eloquent : “the participants agree to collect, analyse, use and share advance passenger information, in line with their respective legislation ; the level of protection offered by the American legislation is clearly less than that envisaged by the european directive on the issue.
Over the last few days the European Commission has tried to dissuade the Czechs from signing the memorandum while waiting for the 27 members to agree a common position vis a vis the US. But the Czechs don’t want to listen. The Commission is all the more furious that the cavalier attitude of the Czechs threatens to considerably weaken the EU negotiating position ; and to give ideas to other countries such as Estonia and Hungry, equally unhappy with the slow progress made on the visa issue with the US. It has not ruled out taking ‘all appropriate measures’ if the signed memorandum violates the obligations of member states.
Aware of the danger, the interior ministers decided to act. On Thursday during the Home Affairs and Justice Council they agreed on the importance of finding a common approach as quickly as possible and ideally before the ministerial meeting scheduled with the Americans on the 13th March inLjubljana. For the Czech minister ‘the text must be sufficiently supple and broad to cover the bilateral accords that some countries want to sign’. The problem is that a text broad enough to cover the US Czech Republic agreement risks not offering adequate data protection to european passengers going to the US.
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