So it’s official. Obama’s honeymoon with Europe is over. Yesteday’s overwhelming vote against a key agreement on EU-US bank data transfers is the first major snub from the European side after Obama’s inauguration last year.
The vote in the European Parliament is particularly embarrassing after Hillary Clinton’s intense efforts in the past week to change the lawmakers’ minds – phonecalls, letters, op-eds.. telling them how important it is for Europe to allow US investigators to get data on their banking transactions on the search for terrorism funding. Nothing helped.
Euro-deputies scoffed at being sidelined in negotiations and claimed the data protection provisions were too weak.
Added to that, and maybe more important than privacy issues, the Parliament used this vote to flex its muscles towards national governments and the EU commission – the bloc’s executive.
A „historic victory” claimed the Socialist leader in the parliament, Martin Schulz. „The US Administration may have wrongly thought they could deal with the European Parliament like Gulliver with the Lilliputians,” the German politician said.
As one fellow journalist put it, „15 minutes of fame for the European Parliament at the expense of EU security.”
Now what? Well, the US can still negotiate bilateral deals with the Netherlands and Switzerland, where the company dealing with this data, SWIFT, has its data bases. A mirror data base on US soil, which had been at the thrust of a big EU-US scandal in 2006 has been reconfigured since January 1st, so that it no longer has information on European transactions. That is why the US had negotiated this deal last year, but meanwhile, the new EU legal framework – the Lisbon Treaty – came into force, giving the Parliament the power to reject the agreement.
Washington can also pursue the EU track, negotiating a new agreement with the whole Union, but that would take considerably longer and the European Parliament will still have the right to say ‘nay’ at the end of the process.
The Parliament’s snub comes shortly after Obama himself gave Europe the cold shoulder, when cancelling his attendance to an EU-US summit planned in Madrid in May.
In fairness, the summit more than anything else was a photo-opportunity for the Spanish Prime Minister Jose Rodriguez Zapatero, who has developed somewhat of a crush on Obama. He even attended the National Prayer Breakfast, despite being a convinced secularist, just to shake hands with Obama. His country’s plummeting economy and soaring unemployment rates, his dwindling popularity, were all enough reasons to be depressed. Not to mention that although he is the chairman of the rotating EU presidency, he has way less powers than his predecessors, because of the same Lisbon Treaty that gave a bigger say to the EU parliament. It actually shouldn’t be Zapatero, but the standing president of the EU council – Belgian low-key politician Herman Van Rompuy – who organises such summit. These institutional quarrels were one of the reasons why Obama decided not to go to Madrid. „We’ve told them: ‘Figure it out and let us know,’ ” a White House official told WSJ.
However, summitry is what EU is best at. And diplomats say it’s a way to cement relations between the EU and US. Especially after the deep freeze during the Bush years. Obama just doesn’t seem to be bothered by this. Will this come back to haunt him? Maybe the EU parliament’s snub is a first sign already…