Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship
Strengthening trust in transatlantic relations: the importance of privacy
Washington D.C., 9 July 2010
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure to be here today and speak at the opening of the workshop "Bridging the Gap: Transatlantic Homeland Security and Privacy."
I feel particularly privileged to address the Atlantic Council – a renowned think tank stimulating dialogue and promoting consensus on major issues facing the Atlantic Alliance and transatlantic relations. Promoting constructive solutions to transatlantic issues has been a constant goal since the early days of my political career as member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. As member of the European Parliament (for ten years) and as European Commissioner since 1999, I have continued to reinforce the transatlantic common market with concrete actions.
Today I am in Washington for the first time as Vice-President of the European Commission and as EU Justice Commissioner to seek ways to set the foundations for a robust transatlantic partnership in the field of justice.
The European Union and the United States enjoy the most successful and integrated partnership in the world. It is robust and successful because it is built upon values such as the rule of law, democracy, freedom, solidarity, economic freedom and stability. And as it is a relationship based on the same values it is destined to be successful and win-win.
Ours is also a multi-layered relationship built upon a solid transatlantic market which, despite the current crisis, remains by far the biggest economic area in the world. It generates close to 4 trillion euros in total commercial sales a year and employs up to 14 million workers on both sides of the Atlantic.
This level of economic integration, along with our convergence of values, constitutes a strong foundation on which to build our partnership further.
A partnership which will be even stronger thanks to the recent constitutional changes in the European Union. The new Lisbon Treaty reinforces the Union’s ability to speak with one voice in a stable institutional setting. We now have a permanent President of the European Council – speaking for 27 Heads of State or Government – a High Representative for external affairs, and following this morning's vote in the European Parliament we will set up a common European diplomatic service in the coming months. We also have a reinforced President of the European Commission representing the common interest of a whole continent. And we have a more assertive European Parliament (with powers comparable to those of the U.S. Congress) that completes the new institutional setting, empowering the European Union authority to conduct business in many different areas from economic governance to building a common area of justice, freedom and security.
The new Treaty has also reinforced values and rights in the European Union by giving concrete meaning to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. This "Bill of Rights" applies to all individuals. This, by the way, also includes US citizens in Europe. In the EU, fundamental rights are guaranteed for every individual, regardless of nationality or place of residence. The new Charter represents the most modern codification of fundamental rights in the world. It is the compass guiding all EU policies and actions.
Tomorrow morning, I will deposit a copy of the Charter of Fundamental Rights in the National Archives. This symbolic gesture in the "Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom" will show to the American people that 500 million Europeans share a common history built on common values.
With the EU now equipped with stronger institutions, new authorities and a whole new fundamental rights sphere of law, policy makers across the Atlantic can now take a quantum leap and work towards a stronger transatlantic partnership.
Let me take today’s topic as a concrete example. The current debate on the issues of data protection and privacy is a real opportunity for policy makers in Europe and in the U.S. to reach an overarching agreement on data protection in order to bridge the existing differences on the application of privacy rights. And the two continents will show the world how they can join in the interests of their citizens while reinforcing security and rights.
This morning’s overwhelmingly positive vote in the European Parliament in Strasbourg on the TFTP (Terrorist Financing Tracking Programme) marks a new era of trust between the U.S. and Europe. But the elected representatives of 500 million Europeans also made it clear that the real work has yet to begin. With its vote the European Parliament has given the US an advance in trust, by setting a clear time limit for working on a general agreement on transatlantic data protection. This should be done at the same time as the work on the PNR (Passenger Name Record) agreement continues. The PNR agreement is only applied provisionally; it is still subject to a vote by the European Parliament. These uncertainties need to be resolved; these differences need to be bridged.
It is my determination to end this piecemeal approach. That is why, within my first few months in office in Brussels, I worked on a mandate to start negotiations with the US on an umbrella data protection agreement. The aim is clear: to provide legal certainty to data transfers by ensuring that all these transfers are subject to high standards of data protection on both sides of the Atlantic. EU Member States are currently discussing the fine print of the Commission's proposal before negotiations can officially start. This will be done swiftly and I am confident that the green light will be given in the coming months.
I am therefore here in Washington for exploratory talks with the US Administration (including my counterparts in the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security as well as the White House). I am joined by Ms. Françoise Le Bail who is the Director General of the newly created EU Justice Department and who will be the EU team's chief negotiator. She has my full confidence to lead these negotiations successfully.
Past negotiations on the transfer of passenger data (PNR) or the more recent talks on the transfer of financial transaction data for the purposes of the TFTP have shown how difficult it is to find mutually acceptable standards and practice for the protection of personal data.
For years experts have been discussing the usefulness of having an international agreement between the European Union and the U.S. based on high standards for the protection of personal data to prevent and prosecute crime. There were many talks but little political will. This has to change.
The EU and the U.S. are both committed to the protection of personal data and privacy, even if our systems for doing so are not identical. Removing protection gaps and discrepancies between the two legal systems and thereby improving legal certainty and reaching a high level of protection for any individual are the goals for this new agreement.
It should become the reference agreement for personal data protection standards that apply whenever personal data needs to be transferred across the Atlantic for the purposes of police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters. In addition to providing legal certainty and a high level of protection, such an agreement would also save time and energy in any future negotiation of data transfer agreements because these talks would be based on the umbrella agreement.
You might ask yourself why we need to replace bilateral cooperation with EU Member States with a European-wide agreement. It is simply because of the joint obligations under the new Lisbon Treaty, the Charter of Fundamental Rights (which contains a specific article – article 8 – the right to personal data protection), and the constitutional rules of EU Member States.
Privacy and personal data protection are not only about the protection of individuals against interference from the state. Beyond the "right to be left alone", well-known in the US, these fundamental rights are intrinsically linked with the core of human dignity and self-determination, notably the right of every individual to decide on the disclosure and use of his or her personal data. The experience of dictatorship and oppression during the 20th century in many European countries may explain why this issue is so important to us.
You may also ask – what's in it for the US? What benefits will the future data protection agreement yield for Americans? My aim is to reach a win-win situation for both the EU and the U.S. I want to negotiate a data protection agreement that contains all the necessary high level data protection standards, with obligations for data controllers and rights for data subjects, as well as mechanisms to ensure the application of those standards. This should become a complete self-contained set of rules. The U.S. would feel the benefits immediately since high data protection standards would guarantee legal certainty and facilitate data transfers to and from the U.S. much more easily than is currently possible.
I know that the negotiations will not be easy; most of all when we touch upon key issues that are at the core of our respective legal systems. We may well have to involve our legislators to get the deal done.
It will be challenging, but necessary if we want to eliminate a thorny obstacle in transatlantic relations.
Pressure from our citizens to ensure the protection of their fundamental rights to privacy and personal data (in particular in the context of police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters) is steadily growing and the obligations of the EU Treaty and of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights are there to remind us that the citizens have a point.
With the strong approval of the TFTP in the European Parliament in Strasbourg this morning the elected representatives of the EU citizens gave the U.S. an advance in trust. We have to turn this trust into reality. The US has a strong tradition of fighting for civil liberties. We share the goal of protecting citizens’ right to privacy. Now we have to join the American Bill of Rights with the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. Europe and the U.S. have to seize the opportunity of a solid agreement on data protection to bring new dynamism to the transatlantic partnership and agree on a ‘gold’ standard that would set the tone for the rest of the world. I look forward to begin working along these lines with my American friends and counterparts.