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EU lawmakers seek to block U.S. financial spying

Hiroshi Higuchi | Photolibrary | Getty Images

The European Parliament called on Wednesday for U.S. access to a global financial database in Belgium to be suspended due to concerns that the United States is snooping on the European Union, not just combating terrorism.

EU lawmakers voted to freeze Washington's ability to track international payments because of suspicions that it has abused an agreement giving it limited access to the SWIFT database.

They worry the United States is covertly drawing additional information from the database following leaked U.S. documents aired by Globo, Brazil's biggest television network, indicating that the U.S. government has secretly tapped into SWIFT.

"We need full transparency, especially with all the NSA revelations," said Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Liberals in the European Parliament, referring to the U.S. National Security Agency surveillance made public by fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

"Europe cannot accept that the data of private citizens is being accessed without anyone knowing about it," Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister, told Reuters.

(Read more: EU threatensto halt terrorist fund tracking deal with US)

Although not binding, the parliament's vote reflects public anger at reports of NSA spying on European citizens. The European Commission - the EU executive - and EU governments will still need to approve any suspension of U.S. access to SWIFT.

The European Commission said a statement that it was "still waiting for additional written assurances" that the United States is respecting its agreement with the EU, but had no immediate plans to propose a suspension of SWIFT to EU members.

"U.S. lap dog"

The United States denies any wrongdoing.

David Cohen, the U.S. Treasury's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, has told EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom his government has respected the 2010 agreement, according to an October 9 statement by Malmstrom.

The EU shares data with the U.S. Treasury from SWIFT, which exchanges millions of financial messages on transactions across the world every day, but only on a limited basis to help intercept possible terrorism plots.

The agreement is part of transatlantic cooperation following the September 11, 2001 attacks on U.S. cities.

(Read more: US Spying a 'Slap inthe Face': EU Lawmaker)

The parliament in Strasbourg voted 280 in favor and 254 against with 30 abstentions, calling for a suspension until a full inquiry can clarify the situation.

"The EU cannot continue to remain silent in the face of these ongoing revelations: it gives the impression we are little more than a lap dog of the United States," said Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German Green in the parliament.

Globo's report of U.S. financial spying was among a host of leaks by Snowden that have tested EU-U.S. diplomatic relations.

French newspaper Le Monde reported this week that the NSA had recorded French telephone data on a huge scale between December 2012 and January this year. Other reports have accused the U.S. government of bugging European Union offices.

The parliament's call follows another vote by EU lawmakers for a tougher data privacy regime including fines for companies such as Google, Facebook, Yahoo! that violate rules limiting how data is shared with non-EU countries.

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