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Germany’s War on the War on Terror

Terrorist financiers: good. Tax evaders: bad.

Mar 29, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 27 • By JOHN ROSENTHAL
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Last month, the European parliament rejected the so-called SWIFT agreement, which would have permitted American terrorism investigators to continue inspecting data on international financial transactions originating from European banks. The members of parliament thus shut down a program that French investigative judge Jean-Louis Bruguière concluded was a “vital counter-terrorism tool,” which had proved its worth in both elucidating terror attacks and preventing them. 

Germany’s War on the War on Terror

Officially known as the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program (TFTP), it was set up by the Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks. In a report submitted to the EU, Judge Bruguière listed several terror acts that had been thwarted with the help of it: among them, the 2006 U.K.-based plot to bring down transatlantic airliners using liquid explosives, the 2007 “Sauerland cell” plot to bomb American military installations in Germany, and the 2007 plot to blow up New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. Among the plots that the TFTP has helped investigators to elucidate, the report mentions the 2002 Bali bombings, the 2004 Madrid train bombings, the 2005 London transport bombings, and the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The arrest of Riduan Isamuddin—the reputed “Bin Laden of Southeast Asia”—was reportedly facilitated by the program.

The SWIFT agreement is so-named for the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, a Brussels-based consortium of banks. In voting down the agreement, the European parliament made use of powers freshly accorded it under the Lisbon Treaty. The vote has thus been hailed in the European media and in the halls of the parliament itself as a triumph of “European democracy.” The fact that the vote was held anonymously, with no record of the votes of individual MEPs being made public, suggests that European democracy still has a ways to go.

Despite the anonymous voting procedure, however, the boisterous run-up to the vote left no doubt about the leading role played by German MEPs of all political persuasions in killing the agreement. That German Social Democrats, Greens, and the “post-Communist” Left party opposed the agreement will come as no surprise. “This agreement .  .  . breathes the spirit of the security ideology of the United States of America,” the leader of the Socialists in the European parliament, Martin Schulz, thundered during a debate the day before the vote, “but it does not breathe the spirit of the protection of the fundamental rights that we as European deputies must guarantee for the citizens of this continent.”

The European People’s party (EPP), by far the largest group in the parliament, supported the agreement, as did the smaller European Conservatives and Reformists group, which includes Britain’s Tories. So too did the Socialist government of Spain, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency. Speaking on behalf of the presidency during the debate, Spain’s minister of the interior, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, pleaded—albeit somewhat apologetically—for approval of the agreement.

The key to the defeat of the SWIFT agreement was thus the defection from the EPP mainstream of the German MEPs of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). As the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung noted, the votes of conservative MEPs combined with those of “renegade” Spanish socialists might have sufficed for a majority in favor, “were it not for the German ‘Union’ deputies.” 

On January 31, just days before a crucial vote in the parliament’s committee on civil liberties, justice, and home affairs, Manfred Weber of the CSU flagged his opposition in an op-ed titled “No Transfer of Bank Data!” in Germany’s mass-market tabloid Bild. In terms essentially indistinguishable from those of his Social Democratic colleague Schulz, Weber wrote, “For the data of European citizens, we deputies want European data protection standards.” On February 4, the committee recommended the rejection of the agreement. Werner Langen, the chairman of the CDU/CSU delegation in the parliament, likewise inveighed against the agreement. Insisting on the need for greater parliamentary input, Langen said, “Such a far-reaching agreement that encroaches on the rights of citizens cannot come to pass without public parliamentary consultation.” 

The need to negotiate an access agreement emerged following the decision of the SWIFT consortium to shut down its U.S. servers and store all relevant data at European locations. In July of last year, the European Council, representing the 27 EU member states, announced its intention to negotiate the required agreement with the United States. The mere prospect of negotiations sparked frenzied reactions across the German political spectrum. 

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