European Parliament lashes out at “shocking” U.S. surveillance program

Ahead of a U.S.-EU summit this Friday, the European Parliament had a brief debate about the PRISM surveillance scandal on Tuesday morning. With near unanimity, the speakers raised strong concerns with the program’s mass collection of Europeans’ personal data.

For those unfamiliar with the workings of the European Parliament, members of the European Parliament (MEPs) operate in transnational political groupings. Those groups’ representatives speak in order of the size of the group (largest to smallest) and I have included an indication in brackets of how many MEPs each group has, in order to indicate influence.

I apologize in advance for including at best brief quotes from those MEPs who spoke in languages other than English (the translation facility on the livestream was unavailable). The most notable of these was of course the representative of the center-right European People’s Party, the largest of the political groups, who spoke in German. The debate was opened and closed by Tonio Borg, the European commissioner for health and consumer policy, who was standing in for justice commissioner Viviane Reding:

  • Tonio Borg (European Commission): “Programs such as the so-called PRISM and the laws on the basis of which such programs are organized potentially endanger the fundamental right to privacy and data protection of EU citizens… The Commission is asking for clear commitments from the United States as to the respect of the fundamental rights of EU citizens to data protection and as to access to judicial redress in the same way as it is afforded to U.S. residents… It will request clarifications as to whether access to data is limited to individual cases and based on concrete suspicions or if it allows bulk transfers of data.”
  • Manfred Weber (European People’s Party, 269/754): “For us in Europe it is unacceptable [that different standards of protection apply to U.S. citizens in this program].”
  • Claude Moraes (Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, 190/754): “The events of the last few days… have caused shock to our European citizens. For the S&D group, we are very clear that while security is important this has caused for our citizens a major breach of trust. [At Friday’s meeting it is important] to hold to account Eric Holder and the U.S. for what they have done in transferring, allegedly, bulk information of our citizens which may be completely unnecessary in the fight against terrorism. We wish to… ensure the U.S. public authorities, when they are processing EU citizens’ data, do so within our standards.”
  • Sophia in ‘t Veld (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, 85/754): “500 million EU citizens were very shocked last week to find a foreign nation has access to every detail of their private lives. We get the commissioner for public health to deal with this issue while President Barroso should have got in his helicopter … Why aren’t the prime political leaders of Europe here? … We are failing the European citizens at a time when trust in the EU is at an all-time low – we should be ashamed of ourselves… The member states are speaking doublespeak to their citizens – are we surprised that they are losing trust? … We need political leadership in Europe to defend the rights of our citizens and the time is now.”
  • Jan Philipp Albrecht (Greens – European Free Alliance, 58/754): “I completely share the concerns that have been raised by all political groups here. It’s not only data protection, not only a small technical issue, this is about the rule of law and democracy… they cannot be in line with mass surveillance of people all around the world… If we really want to have a safe European cloud need to make sure we have strong data protection rules that are enforceable… We would like to agree on standards with the U.S. [on international data transfer] but we need some movement on the other side of the Atlantic.”
  • Timothy Kirkhope (European Conservatives and Reformists, 55/754): “It’s too early to draw final conclusions yet here we are, already pointing the finger, with some expressing anti-American and anti-Commission rhetoric. Protecting citizens from modern threats is a balancing act … it would be worth some people in this room remembering who the real enemy is and where it is and when we want answers that friends listen most when we talk and not when we shout.”
  • Jaroslav Paška (Europe of Freedom and Democracy, 35/754) and Marie-Christine Vergiat (European United Left – Nordic Green Left, 34/754) both spoke but I did not understand. Vergiat shouted a lot though, and seemed quite angry at the PRISM revelations. Martin Ehrenhauser (representing non-affiliated MEPs, 28/754) also spoke, stating that “this program offends fundamental rights” and questioning which European security agencies had benefited from PRISM data, as seems to have been the case in the UK and the Netherlands.
  • Tonio Borg: “The Commission, I must say, shares the European Parliament’s concerns on this PRISM scandal … We are not happy with level of data protection from the U.S. … The whistleblower [Edward Snowden] said ‘government has granted itself power it is not entitled to.’ We are entitled to ask questions at the next EU summit … I can comment as a former minister for the interior for 10 years [that the] frustration of any law enforcement agency is that while terrorists and organized crime have no rules to go by, law enforcements agencies in a democratic country cannot use anything but the gloves of law in order to fight terrorism… No-one should use this special relationship [between the U.S. and Europe] not to abide by the law. Partnership entails not only rights but deeper obligations. No one should be taken for granted.”