BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union backed down on Wednesday from threats to suspend agreements granting the United States access to European data, rejecting calls for a tougher stance over alleged U.S. spying.
The move marks an abrupt about-turn for the European Commission, the EU executive, after warnings it issued in July to U.S. officials following revelations that Washington had spied on European citizens and EU institutions.
Cecilia Malmstrom, the EU’s commissioner for home affairs, said she had found no proof of U.S. wrongdoing, either in the sharing of flight passenger records or in the tracking of international payments.
“I have received written assurances from the U.S. authorities,” Malmstrom said, referring to the SWIFT payments system in Belgium, which exchanges millions of messages on transactions globally and which the United States has access to in order to intercept terrorism plots.
“The Commission does not suspend an agreement with an international partner on the basis of two articles in the newspaper,” she told a news conference.
Malmstrom also said there had been no abuse of the Passenger Name Record agreement, which covers data provided by passengers when booking tickets and checking in for flights.
The spying allegations have complicated EU-U.S. ties at a delicate moment in transatlantic relations, as Brussels and Washington are negotiating a free-trade pact that would encompass almost half the world’s economy.
The Commission’s decision is also a setback for the European Parliament, which had demanded an end to the accords unless Washington revealed the extent of its surveillance in Europe, made public by fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
“I know that citizens’ trust in Europe has been shaken by the Snowden case ... We have engaged with the United States to bring clarity on these cases,” Malmstrom said.
The United States denies any wrongdoing and the U.S. embassy to the European Union in Brussels welcomed Wednesday’s decision to uphold the data-sharing agreements, saying in a statement they reflected “the breadth and depth of U.S.-EU cooperation”.
EU lawmakers voted last month to suspend Washington’s ability to track international payments through the SWIFT database because of suspicions that U.S. agents trawled too deeply for information, abusing an agreement giving the United States only limited access.
Sophie in ‘t Veld, a Dutch Liberal member of the European Parliament, criticised the Commission’s move.
“They are putting diplomatic relations ahead of citizens rights. The Commission is being extremely timid to the Americans,” she told Reuters.
“They have done an investigation and concluded that everything is hunky dory. This is not serious,” she said, adding that taking the United States at its word was naive.
Lawmakers fret that the United States is covertly drawing extra information from SWIFT following leaked U.S. documents aired by Globo, Brazil’s biggest television network, indicating that Washington has secretly tapped into the database.
Malmstrom said she would stay alert to any unlawful U.S. behaviour but had already warned the European Parliament she had no plans to propose a suspension of SWIFT to EU members.
The data-sharing agreements are part of transatlantic cooperation following the September 11, 2001 attacks on U.S. cities.
Additional reporting by Tom Korkemeier and Adrian Croft; Editing by Gareth Jones