Europe's tussle between civil liberties and the need for information to fight terrorism was tugged in two directions yesterday.
A majority of European Parliamentarians agreed at a open meeting in Strasbourg, France, to reject an EU-US accord permitting the sharing, with US security authorities, of personal information about air passengers flying to the US from Europe.
The Parliament's role is purely advisory, but its rejection presents the European Commission - the EU's executive body, which negotiated the data-sharing accord - with a difficult political problem.
Meanwhile, justice ministers of the 15 EU national governments agreed at a meeting in Brussels to give their law enforcement authorities access to some airline passenger data. Although intended as an instrument to fight illegal immigration into the EU, the UK in the past six months has pushed hard to pass the measure, saying it was necessary in order to combat terrorism.
Thoughts of the 11 March train bombs in Madrid secured the measure widespread support. The government ministers also rejected a proposal by some countries, including Sweden and France, to limit the amount of time that the passenger data may be stored to 24 hours.
UK Home Office minister Caroline Flint had campaigned against the 24-hour clause, arguing that it would violate UK law, and stand in the way of further cooperation between enforcement agencies in tracking terrorist suspects.
"We must intelligently use our intelligence," she said in a statement. "It is right we make the most of information collected at our borders by making it available to immigration authorities and law enforcement agencies across the EU."
MEPs are due to debate the new requirements for air passengers in Europe at a meeting today. A spokesman for the Parliament's civil rights committee said a proposal to reject the new European measure is unlikely to gain majority support. "Spanish MEPs are likely to object to any attempt to curb anti-terrorism measures, as are the Christian Democrats," said committee spokesman Danny de Paepe. The amount of data about passengers to be made available for security purposes is far less than the amount of data demanded by the US.
The rejection of the EU-US accord was not universal however. Some 229 MEPs voted to reject it, while 202 voted in favor and 19 abstained.
"In the USA, the protection of privacy is not regarded as a fundamental right, and only US citizens are granted the right to data protection," the civil rights committee said in a statement explaining why the European Parliament opposes the accord. The Parliament urged the Commission to reach "a proper international agreement with the US that would offer genuine guarantees for passengers."
As for what happens now, Commission spokesman Jonathan Todd, noted diplomatically: "The Commission takes note of the European Parliament vote and will reflect on the next steps at a forthcoming meeting of commissioners."