BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Suspending a commercial data-sharing agreement between the European Union and the United States is still an option for the incoming EU Justice Commissioner if Washington doesn't fully address Europe's concerns over U.S. snooping.
The Czech Republic's Vera Jourova said in written answers to EU lawmakers that the so-called Safe Harbour agreement allowing companies to transfer personal data to the United States could be suspended if negotiations between Brussels and Washington on security services' access to personal data prove fruitless.
"Suspension is certainly an option on the table for me. But we are not yet there," Jourova said in answers seen by Reuters on Monday.
Under the EU's strict data protection laws, companies may only transfer personal data outside the 28-member bloc if a country is deemed to have adequate safeguards for that data. Only a handful of countries worldwide meet the required standards.
The United States is not one of them, which is why the European Commission, the EU's executive, adopted the Safe Harbour agreement in 2000, under which U.S. companies certify themselves that they meet the EU's data privacy standards.
However, the Commission has come under pressure from EU lawmakers to scrap the agreement, after last year's revelations about mass U.S. surveillance programs involving EU citizens, which prompted a political backlash against U.S. tech companies.
"Safe Harbour is there because the U.S. is not adequately protecting personal data," one opponent of the agreement in the Brussels-based legislature, Jan Philipp Albrecht of the Greens group, told Reuters.
Jourova, who will take over the review of Safe Harbour from Nov. 1 if approved as Justice Commissioner, was grilled by members of the European Parliament last Wednesday and asked to clarify her position on Safe Harbour, which is under review, in additional written questions.
As of September last year, 3,246 companies were certified under Safe Harbour, including Google and Facebook. If it were to be suspended, alternative mechanisms for transferring data exist, but they are much more onerous.
The Commission announced a review of Safe Harbour in November last year after former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed details of Washington's eavesdropping on Europeans' phone calls, including those of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The Commission gave Washington a 13-point list of issues to address before it would put forward a revised data sharing agreement. Chief among these was a guarantee that the U.S. government would use the national security prerogative to access Europeans' data only when strictly necessary and in response to a specific threat.
The national security exception is the last issue holding up an agreement between the EU and the US, and former EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding had set the end of the summer as a deadline.
"Allow me to give this another push and to continue working in a constructive spirit with the United States building on the progress made so far, while insisting that a higher level of ambition is shown and must materialize in practice," Jourova told lawmakers in her answers.
While the European Parliament cannot reject a new Safe Harbour framework put forward by the Commission, both lawmakers and EU officials say the Commission would likely not act unilaterally.
"The Commission will feel the Parliament's teeth elsewhere," Albrecht said.
Claude Moraes, a member of the Socialist bloc, agreed, telling Reuters it would be "pretty disastrous" if the Commission bypassed parliament.
"The new commissioner needs to push the United States a bit more."
Editing by Hugh Lawson