updated 10/6/2006 5:55:35 AM ET 2006-10-06T09:55:35

The United States and Europe reached a last-minute deal on Friday on new rules governing the supply of personal data on transatlantic air passengers to U.S. law enforcement agencies as part of the fight against terrorism.

“This new agreement will provide a possibility of giving passenger data to the U.S. authorities while guaranteeing sufficient data protection,” Finnish Justice Minister Leena Luhtanen told a news conference.

The new interim accord, which should be formally approved by EU governments next week, fills a legal vacuum which airlines feared could expose them to breach of privacy suits.

Under arrangements put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, European airlines pass on data on passengers, such as addresses and credit card details, in order to be allowed to land at U.S. airports.

The EU’s highest court struck down that agreement in May on a legal technicality. The new interim pact will apply until July 2007 and the two sides will negotiate a long-term agreement in the meantime, Luhtanen said.

EU Justice and Security Commissioner Franco Frattini said the deal, clinched in nine hours of overnight negotiations, would make it easier for U.S. law enforcement agencies to obtain the information without giving them automatic electronic access.

The 25-nation EU had initially wanted to simply roll over the invalidated pact on a different legal basis but U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff insisted on better access for law enforcement agencies to the data supplied to border and customs authorities.

EU ambassadors gave the green light on Friday to initial the new interim agreement pending formal approval by ministers next week after member states have studied the text in detail, a senior EU official said.

The European Parliament, which mounted the legal challenge in the name of data protection, paradoxically opened the way for easier FBI and CIA access to travelers’ personal records.

The executive European Commission had warned there could be chaos if there was no deal after the old agreement lapsed last Saturday, but transatlantic air traffic was not disrupted.

Frattini said the U.S. authorities had agreed to apply a standard of privacy protection comparable to European rules.

“We are not talking about more data or more exchanges. We are talking about making easier transmitting data to (the law enforcement) agencies,” he said.

EU negotiators were wary about appearing to yield too much to U.S. demands given widespread European public misgivings over President George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism,” from revelations about secret CIA jails to abuses in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.

Transatlantic ties will not have been helped by the European Commission’s proposal on Wednesday that EU states force U.S. diplomats to apply for visas in retaliation for Washington’s refusal to waive visa requirements for most new EU countries.  REUTERS

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