Are US-EU relations on the rocks?

BRUSSELS, Belgium — It’s not the best of times; it’s not the worst of times.

But it’s surely not the kind of times Brussels and Washington anticipated when Barack Obama took over the White House.

The European Parliament Thursday handed the United States a resounding rejection of a provisional agreement on sharing banking information in the pursuit of terrorists, also known as the SWIFT agreement.

The 378-196 rejection is the most public evidence of transatlantic discord as the European Union scrutinizes U.S. security policy, with particular attention to the price paid in privacy as counterterrorism efforts grow.

For their part, EU leaders are smarting from what was widely perceived a “snub” by Obama — “L'Europe snobee” read Le Monde’s headline — when he decided to skip a head-of-state summit the current Spanish presidency planned for May.

While U.S. conservatives were quick to point out that former President George W. Bush never missed a U.S.-EU summit, some observers said Obama thought the EU summits were unproductive and the leadership structure too messy since the Lisbon Treaty added a “president” to the bloc’s bureaucracy.

“It’s not a high moment in U.S.-EU relations,” said Cristina Gallach, the spokeswoman for the Spanish government in its six-month stint in the rotating presidency. Gallach, speaking prior to Thursday’s vote, previously worked as spokeswoman and close adviser to Javier Solana during his 10-year tenure as the European Union’s foreign policy chief and as NATO Secretary General before that.

The Department of Treasury, which oversees the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program (TFTP), declined to comment when contacted by Global Post, but the U.S. Embassy to the European Union put out a statement making clear the government’s dismay at the result. The U.S., including Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, had lobbied hard for TFTP’s passage.

“This outcome is a setback for U.S.-EU counterterror cooperation,” the statement said. “This decision disrupts an important counterterrorism program which has resulted in more than 1,500 reports and numerous leads to European governmental authorities and has contributed significantly to collaborative counterterrorism efforts between the United States and Europe.”

The U.S. was joined in its disappointment by the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, which negotiated this interim agreement on behalf of the EU. Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding, who has expressed skepticism about the width and breadth of the SWIFT parameters, nonetheless underscored that “EU-U.S. relations are critical for the freedom and security of our citizens” and said therefore she would work toward forging a data-sharing accord that could pass the EP’s muster as negotiations on a long-term agreement continue.

Other players were less nuanced — and more concerned about the vote’s impact on relations with Washington. Some argued that the U.S. would still be able to get the data it wants — through bilateral agreements with member states or perhaps subpoenas of financial institutions — but without any of the safeguards that had been negotiated by the commission into the agreement.

Olivier Guitta, a Paris-based security and geopolitical consultant, called the vote a “major diplomatic blow to already tense U.S.-EU relations.” Guitta, who also writes a newsletter on counterterrorism and foreign affairs, thinks the vote will have damaging implications for Parliament’s credibility as it exercises new oversight powers handed to it by the Lisbon Treaty.

“At this point,” Guitta asked, “on the other side of the Atlantic, how can one view the EU as a committed ally?” Guitta surmised the move would be just one more reason Obama would not regret skipping Madrid.

But Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the Dutch member of the European Parliament whose report on TFTP advised rejecting it, made no apologies for the result. “Get real!” she exclaimed in an interview following the tally. “What would the U.S. Congress do” if Europe demanded hordes of information on American citizens? “I’m sure they would not vote in favor of it!” Hennis-Plasschaert said she thinks that realization drew many votes to her side.

She acknowledged that Washington could now turn to bilateral relations rather than trying to work with the EU. “It’s up to all member states to show some backbone and not to get divided just because everyone wants to be friends with the U.S.,” she said.

Spanish President Jose Luis Rodrigues Zapatero, who just returned from a visit to Washington where he was hosted by Obama, was asked following Thursday’s EU summit about U.S.-EU relations in general and, in particular, whether the TFTP rejection would affect them.

Zapatero declined to comment on the first question, but said the TFTP rejection “should not affect relations with the U.S.” although he considered the cooperation “very important.” Europe should “open up a period of reflection, of dialogue with the U.S., in order to renew this project.”

Cristina Gallach didn’t seem bothered by the “snub,” saying that what transatlantic relations need is not more meetings, but more meeting of the minds.

“It’s important to work on the substance,” she said, ticking off subject areas such as aviation security, climate change and energy policy in addition to counterterrorism. “In the future, whenever it’s convenient,” she said, “we can always organize ministerials.”