In praise of the European Parliament

by Henry on February 16, 2010

Not wanting to keep on bashing the Economist‘s Charlemagne, who is actually one of my favourite bloggers/columnists,1 but this “piece”: on the sins of the European Parliament is a bit much. To summarize it a little unfairly, Charlemagne feels that the Parliament should really be less bolshie in its tedious efforts to try to increase its powers, and more bolshie about the really important stuff, like saving Brussels hacks five hour train rides cooped up with the _hoi polloi._ 2 I suspect that both Charlemagne and “Gideon Rachman’s hostility”: (I like Gideon a lot, too) to the Parliament comes from their internalization of the Economist‘s perception of the European Union as a technocratic exercise in market integration that would work very nicely if only the member states and specialists were left to run it in peace.

But the EU isn’t merely a “‘fairly impressive experiment in market liberalism.'”: There are lots of other things happening in the EU – most recently including lots of innovations in Justice and Home Affairs, some of them quite remarkably dubious. And it is here that the Parliament has recently proven its merits, by “decisively rejecting”: the EU’s proposed financial data-sharing deal with the US.

bq. the parliament felt, by a 378-196 margin with 31 abstentions, that the US guarantees to protect the privacy of EU citizens were inadequate. Mr Buzek said: “The majority view in the European parliament is that the correct balance between security . . . and the protection of civil liberties and fundamental rights . . . has not been achieved.”

Now it’s worth pointing out that the Parliament’s rejection was not entirely motivated by concerns over EU citizens’ privacy. By vetoing the deal, it’s signalling that the member states (and indeed the US) have to take its policy prerogatives seriously. The member states had tried to rush the deal through the day before Parliament got jurisdiction over Justice and Home Affairs issue, but managed to screw up the technicalities, with unfortunate consequences for transatlantic security relations, but rather better results for the privacy of EU citizens. There would have been a good chance that the deal would have gone down anyway, but it probably would not have gone down in flames.

Which brings us to the main point. Just as it isn’t because of the benevolence of the butcher or baker that we get our dinner, it’s often because of the _amour-propre_ and power-lust of politicians that we get a system that works. The desire of the Parliament for a voice in international justice and home affairs issues, and of individual MEPs for the limelight, means that Parliament is likely to be a highly awkward customer. With any luck, it will continue to prevent security officials on both sides of the Atlantic from reaching mutually convenient deals that are likely to seem rather less politically attractive when they are exposed to the rigors of a public vote by elected representatives. As there are more and more of these deals being cooked up in the EU and elsewhere (a whole world of information sharing arrangements, some justifiable, some not so justifiable, but few exposed to processes of public justification,3 this would be a good thing. MEPs are surely as venal as the next bunch of politicians, but without the Parliament, there would be next to no public debate of these deals, let alone any possibility of vetoing them. It would be nice to see Economist type liberals (who care, I have no doubt about civil liberties, as well as market freedoms) acknowledging this every once in a while.

1Although I may still have one more bout of impertinence in me, depending.

2 Technically, this should really be “cooped up with hoi polloi” since ‘hoi’ is a definite article, but I’m not _that_ much of an arse.

3 The sad yet instructive tale of how the UK “came to adopt the Treaty of Prüm”: being one counter-example where public exposure of the various shenanigans did diddly-squat to prevent it going through. Then, perhaps if it had gotten public traction in the Parliament as well as the House of Lords, it might have gone differently.



JoB 02.16.10 at 10:21 am

Henry, Although I believe the EP should assert its influence more, I also think that the privacy example was one of the worst choices to assert that influence. If you peel off the traditional big brothery propaganda from it, you’re left with the EP blocking a de facto way of getting out of a tax shelter type of global exonomy. Privacy is being overplayed on the left ever since the left is fearing its own centralist big brother shadow (ever since the 70’s or so, probably). Privacy is an instrument now in the hands of rich people to get away with anything. Like for instance, getting the left to torpedo anything that threatens the freedom of movement of their wealth.


bert 02.16.10 at 11:51 am

Charlemagne had a gentle go at Krugman for superimposing an American set of assumptions onto the question of eurozone management (btw, I’m intrigued by the suggestion that, irrespective of hostile public opinion, the Germans couldn’t support a bailout even if they wanted to, since their economic policy has been completely outsourced, half to Frankfurt, the other half to Karlsruhe).

Arguably, you’re doing the same as regards the separation of powers. I can easily imagine a Broderish op-ed which uses The Wealth of Nations to argue for the constitutional importance of divided government, and that dances nimbly from that high ground onto the argument that a vote for the GOP in the midterms will shore up the President’s resolve in the face of pressure from “the Left”. I’m not trying to tar you with that brush, you understand, just observing that the features of the EP you’re choosing to praise are the same ones responsible in part for the current stellar approval scores of the US Congress.
I also think the criticism of the Strasbourg sessions is more than just a journalistic whinge. It’s a systemic critique, whose target isn’t the EP so much as the Council, which France has exploited to carve itself a glistening slab of pork.

Not wanting to keep jumping to the defence of the Economist, given that I nurse a deep mistrust of Micklethwait and all his works …


Stuart 02.16.10 at 12:27 pm

If the US is complaining about not having access to every financial transaction in the EU, presumably that means every EU security service has equal access to every transaction in the US, right?


Henry 02.16.10 at 1:58 pm

Hi bert

My argument here is actually less a separation of powers one than a very broad claim about democratic oversight. This is a bit of a bugbear of mine – there are lots and lots of things happening in international arrangements over data sharing, domestic security etc, with very little democratic oversight indeed. In the EU, what tends to happens is that JHA ministries get together, cook up deals among themselves, and shunt them through. A good example is the aforementioned Treaty of Prum, which was cooked up by a couple of member states, presented as a fait accompli, and then adopted unanimously. As the House of Lords report suggests, the UK refused to participate in the initial negotiations, because it knew it would receive domestic flak for signing up to some of the measures, but then was able, with enormous regret and reluctance etc etc to sign up to the Treaty because it was a done deal, we have to cooperate with our European partners and all of that. Having some degree of democratic accountability helps make it more difficult to engage in this kind of fancy footwork. And politicians in _both_ Parliamentary systems and separation of powers systems are incentivized to embarrass the government when they can, although the specific logic works out somewhat differently. The actual dispute here is not really Parliamentary vs. separation of powers – it is a “the EU is all about technical stuff, so no direct democratic oversight is needed beyond that provided by the member states” vs. “the EU is all about politics; we need elected politicians directly in the mix.” Andy Moravcsik is perhaps the most notable academic proponent of the former view.

JoB – I’m not sure I understood your point – it was a bit telegraphic.

Stuart – the implicit deal here was that the Europeans would then be able to get their data back from the US under a kind of side-deal arrangement, again circumventing all sorts of things that shouldn’t be circumvented. This would potentially include at least some transactions involving US citizens. I think that the relevant people in Justice and in Homeland Security in the US would not have much of an intellectual problem in sharing this data with the Europeans, but would obviously have a difficult time in selling it at home, if it were done in a direct way.


JoB 02.16.10 at 2:06 pm

4- The EP should block more stuff, yes. They should not have blocked this on privacy grounds. The only ones that are really helped by blocking this are rich people, that can go ahead evading taxes. By the way, if it wouldn’t have helped the rich, the European liberals would not champion this.


bert 02.16.10 at 2:33 pm

In observing that politicians might be motivated less by zeal for democratic oversight and more by amour-propre and power-lust, you were sounding a bit like James Madison: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition”. But I grasp the fulcrum of your gist. And I’m in no way anti-EP myself. I’ve been impressed for example that they’ve been able to take on internet governance issues in a way national authorities simply haven’t. And if there’s any realistic prospect of resolving the ludicrous problem of rotating sessions, it’ll be from the EP becoming strong and self-confident enough to say “bollocks to this, we’re not turning up.” At which point Strasbourg will have a lovely new steel and glass roller-disco.


Henry 02.16.10 at 3:00 pm

JoB – two very different issues here. One is data on who holds what in which bank accounts – which is what rich people care about, and which is being dealt with primarily through bilateral pressures and the OECD. Second is about financial routing information, which _could_ perhaps help spot tax evaders, but isn’t, as best as I know used in that way, but instead used to track unusual looking transactions that could be linked to terrorism. I have no problems with this data being used to track terrorists – but I do want some direct accountability, control and oversight of what is done with it.


JoB 02.16.10 at 3:34 pm


I’m not an expert. I do think that the no-vote effectively blocks better tax evasion whilst it has a relatively small effect on terrorism (if any).


The rhetoric in opposing this has been very much linked to bank account secrecy where we ‘old Europeans’ have kind of a Swiss reflex (probably because mild forms of tax evasion were rather popular across the continent up to a generation ago.

Whatever the details of that vote; the warm fuzzy feeling on ‘championing’ privacy is ill directed imho. In most cases it is not an issue of accountability or oversight but a blind libertarian reflex, one that in the end only benefits the rich.

I bet you that of the last 10 votes that passed in the EP, at least 3 were more debatable – starting with letting Barroso getting another go at it (with a neoliberal commissioner of trade).

PS: and honestly, how many people have interesting bank accounts? the worst time they get on account of their accounts is from their own banks convincing them to invest in Lehman or so?


Henry 02.16.10 at 3:45 pm

JoB – I am not seeing anything about tax evasion in the Spiegel article – what am I missing? The deal in question was limited to exchange of information in the context of terrorism – see for yourself at This really is a complete non-issue – it has _nothing to do_ with looking at rich folks’ bank accounts, for better or worse.


JoB 02.16.10 at 4:32 pm

Henry – Maybe I’m not paranoid enough to feel threatened by privacy threats and I’m paranoid enough to think people just link this to terrorism because it tends to hasten approval.

In the Spiegel article: In a recent SPIEGEL interview, German Justice Minister Sabine Leuthheusser-Schnarrenberger, also of the FDP, expressed her opposition the treaty. “I have never made a secret of my belief that the SWIFT agreement is wrong,” she said. “Even the German Federal Police Agency now concedes that granting intelligence agencies access to people’s bank accounts doesn’t provide any additional security.”

I interpret, counter to your 7, that the agreement would give the US the freedom to look at the bank accounts. I also interpret the article as identifying the opposition to the agreement as this rather libertarian fear that big bad government will ‘abuse’ the agreement for things other than fighting terrorism. These discussions are very hot in Europe, with the German government and other governments fighting internally on whether to pay for information on foreign accounts of their own citizens. Governments are trying to get more control on financial data because they’re very aware that the privacy of this information de facto limits their sovereignty. On principle, I believe we need to applaud governments agreeing to lift bans on exchanging financial intelligence.

But I grant you that I could be wrong. Even if I’m wrong, I don’t understand why this no-vote is hailed as a big thing. At most is is, as you say, a non-issue (a ‘non’-er issue as the double location of the Parliament, probably).

Maybe I’m going overboard. But anything applauded by SWIFT is suspect to me.


JoB 02.16.10 at 4:34 pm

No idea why my previous reaction was caught in moderation. It didn’t even have soc1alism in it, let alone the milder curse words.


hix 02.16.10 at 9:49 pm

Job you are far off. Swift has nothing to do with tax evasion. Swift would alow Americans to look at Europeans bank accounts. It would not allow Europeans to look at Europeans bank accounts which helps against tax evasion. Schnarrenberger is a historic left wing anomaly in the FDP that really cares about civil liberties in general, not just on ocasion to protect tax evaders.


Detlef 02.16.10 at 9:50 pm

@10 JoB,

Maybe I’m not paranoid enough to feel threatened by privacy threats and I’m paranoid enough to think people just link this to terrorism because it tends to hasten approval.

It´s a legal question in Germany. More than 20 years ago, the German “Bundesverfassungsgericht” (Federal Constitutional Court) defined “informelle Selbstbestimmung” as a basic right for every citizen. Simply put, every citizen should be in control of his/her private data. When the government wants access to my data without my explicit agreement they should have a good reason for that, say a criminal investigation for example.
And even then the government action must be targeted and limited. They aren´t allowed to simply grab lots of private data without a reason and then go through them to maybe find something.

Sabine Leuthheusser-Schnarrenberger by the way belongs to the civil rights wing of the FDP. She had the same post back in the early 1990s and resigned in protest when the then German government proposed and passed a law greatly expanding the power of law enforcement agencies to wiretap telephones. After she resigned she initiated with others a law suit against the government. And the Constitutional Court agreed with her and nullified large parts of the law.

I interpret, counter to your 7, that the agreement would give the US the freedom to look at the bank accounts.

From what I´ve read SWIFT stores the information concerning money transfers across national borders. For example if I here in Germany would order something from in the USA. That money transfer would be stored by SWIFT. Money transfers inside a country aren´t stored by SWIFT. Me buying something from in Germany for example.
As it was explained in German media the agreement would give the USA the right to get copies from transactions between EU bank accounts and non-EU bank accounts.
For example, all money transfers in calender week 6 this year between a German bank account and a Egyptian, Brazilian or US bank account.

That´s not limited, that´s not targeted, it simply violates German law and possibly also national laws in other EU member states. By making it an EU treaty, European governments wanted to circumvent national law.
For example, as mentioned above German law enforcement and intelligence agencies are forbidden to just grab personal information without a legal reason. With this treaty, they could just call their counterpart in the USA, ask them to request the data and pass it on the German agency.

Notice too that such data sets would also include business transactions. Which might give hints about the business strategy of EU companies? US intelligence agencies in the past according to rumours weren´t shy to share such data with US companies?

I also interpret the article as identifying the opposition to the agreement as this rather libertarian fear that big bad government will ‘abuse’ the agreement for things other than fighting terrorism.

We like our privacy laws. We don´t see it as “libertarian” in the US sense but as a “liberal” citizen right.

Not to mention that of course governments will “abuse” that. You introduce something as an anti-terrorist law and soon enough law enforcement agencies will lobby to use it in other investigations too. It´s a law of nature. :)
Show me one law enforcement or intelligence agency that would voluntarily restrict access to available data. As justification they´ll tell you that you´ll never know when they might need it.

These discussions are very hot in Europe, with the German government and other governments fighting internally on whether to pay for information on foreign accounts of their own citizens.

Sure, but tax evasion is a crime in Germany.
And the sample data sets provided show that the owners of these Swiss bank accounts didn´t include these assets in their annual tax declaration. So in this case the German government does have a legal justification to have a look at the data.
Not to mention that paying rewards if you help solve a serious crime is nothing unusual here in Germany.

Governments are trying to get more control on financial data because they’re very aware that the privacy of this information de facto limits their sovereignty. On principle, I believe we need to applaud governments agreeing to lift bans on exchanging financial intelligence.

Only if it is limited and targeted.
Sure, I applaud exchanging financial intelligence in a criminal investigation.
I´m against it if they just want access to all my data.

You know, sometimes I just don´t understand the UK and the USA.
You complain that a national identity card (used in most of continental Europe) is a serious threat to your freedom.

In the last 20 years I had to show it only once when I was renting a car. And the guy at the counter noticed that it was already invalid.
(It´s valid for 10 years, then you have to renew it. And I never noticed it because I never had to show it anywhere else.)
And I got the car regardless.

But you seem to be okay with almost limitless wiretapping, surveillance cameras at every corner, government access to all of your private data (not only financial). Not to mention finger prints if you want to enter the USA, DNA data banks maintained by law enforcement agencies and I don´t know what else….


JoB 02.17.10 at 8:41 am

12- If you say so, but it allows Americans to look at European bank accounts of Americans and that could help against tax evasion by Americans.

But the point was that one should qualify ‘civil liberties’ with respect to ‘privacy’. At best this is a non-issue; applauding it as a victory of the EP over the bad state big brother is over the top, at best; forcing France to give up the part-time seat of the EP would, indeed, be more of a winner.


Maria 02.17.10 at 4:57 pm

Let’s not forget the context of the SWIFT data grab. State Dept. and the Commission have form, here, viz the opening of up airline passenger data a several years ago, contra the wishes of the parliament, contra the relevant directives, with the already wafer thin assurances given by the US then flouted. I read the SWIFT decision as at least in part a proffering of the EP’s two fingers to the Commission and the USG.


Mrs Tilton 02.18.10 at 10:56 am

Detlef @13,

Sabine Leuthheusser-Schnarrenberger by the way belongs to the civil rights wing of the FDP

At this point, Sabine Leuthheusser-Schnarrenberger pretty much is the civil rights wing of the FDP.

OT, but what a horror show the latter day FDP are. Politicians who are obviously otherwise perceptive, intelligent people, mouthing the stupidest sort of American Republican cant, insisting their coalition partners in the Union agree to a fiscally suicidal Bush Jr.-ish tax policy while offering none of the resistance any liberal party should mount against moves by the Union in a Bush Jr.-ish direction on non-fiscal matters. Burkhard Hirsch would be rolling in his grave, if only he were dead.

Guido Westerwelle obviously badly misinterpreted the FDP’s stupendous showing at the last elections (nearly 15% of the votes, an all-time high). That wasn’t the electorate signing on to your programme, Guido. It was sizeable chunk of the Union’s electorate voting yellow instead of black, taking out their frustrations with their party in a way that would still help keep it in government while getting the SDP out. With the FDP now polling at less than half their September 2009 electoral result (and, indeed, well below even their result in the previous federal elections as well), with no sign of an end to the downward trend, the party’s shine is a bit scuffed.

For a lot of people in the FDP, Guido can do no wrong. But that will change if he can’t pull out of this spin. It wouldn’t be a bad thing at all if the knives come out for him and the FDP is rid of Westerwellery. It would be nice if Germany had a Liberal Party again, rather than the Party of Low Taxes for Orthodontists that is currently in coalition with the conservatives.


hix 02.18.10 at 6:46 pm

Btw, whats up with that:
Not wanting to keep on bashing the Economist’s Charlemagne, who is actually one of my favourite bloggers/columnists,1

He deserves any bashing. He frames every issue as Uk/US libertarian paradise vs evil continental socialist that try to use the EU to make the UK a socialist hellhole.


bert 02.18.10 at 10:49 pm

A week ago in the EP. Distils my ambivalence, this.

Partly I’m saying, “Woo! Go, Dany.”
There’s a bit in the middle that’s straight out of your comment @4.
And partly I’m thinking, this is coming from the same source as all the nonsense criticism of Caroline Ashton for not blocking a Haiti runway to hold a blue-and-gold press conference. “Global plaiyère”? Get fucked.

Like I say, ambivalent.


Mrs Tilton 02.19.10 at 7:30 am

Still in moderation after 22 hours? And I didn’t even use the dread S-word! (Though I did use “liberal”, and one is constantly told by teabaggers that this is the same thing.)


Walt 02.19.10 at 11:25 am

They’ve gone to the other extreme. Now you got moderated for not using the S-word.

Comments on this entry are closed.