By European Affairs

After years of transatlantic debate, the controversial U.S.-EU passenger name record agreement was finally ratified on April 19 by the European Parliament by a wide majority of 409 votes in favor, 226 against and 33 abstentions.

The agreement obliges airlines to send information about passengers on transatlantic flights in advance to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, including such personal data such as addresses and credit-card numbers.

This anti-terrorist provision had been clouded with uncertainty for years, partly because of Europeans’ privacy concerns and partly because it had become a bone of contention inside the EU system after the Parliament gained new powers under the Lisbon treaty.  An initial version of the pact, signed by the European Commission in 2007, had to be renegotiated at Parliamentarians' insistence because of their concerns that some provisions violated EU privacy regulations, The new version – signed last year and now ratified – tightened protections in this regard. These issues have been extensively aired in  European Institute seminars and its media coverage involving participants from all sides, including "Dirty Harry Meets Hercule Poirot Transatlantic Cooperation in the Fight Against Crime and Terrorism," a European Affairs article by Sophie In ’t Veld, a prominent Dutch Liberal Parliamentarian. She was involved in drafting the Parliament’s proposals but voted against the final bill.

Washington reportedly had made clear that a Parliamentary “no” vote could have led to a suspension of visa-free travel to the U.S.

The outcome was welcomed on both sides of the Atlantic. EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ceceilia Malmstrom said that it is “a substantial improvement on the existing agreement from 2007, and I am pleased that the Parliament has recognized this.”

U.S. Ambassador to the EU William Kennard said that the vote reaffirmed “our shared commitment of to the security of the travelling public.” He added that: “This PNR agreement will also provide legal certainty for airlines and assure travellers that their privacy will be respected. “

The PNR information in some circumstances may also include sensitive data on an individual's ethnic origin, meal choices, health, political views or sex life.

The US authorities have said that automated systems will mask and filter out sensitive data from PNR." Sensitive data "could be used in exceptional circumstances when life is at risk," a European Parliament statement said.

The deal says PNR data will be used exclusively to combat terrorism or fund-raising for terrorism, as well as trans-national crimes that incur a jail sentence of three years or more.

According to British Conservative MEP Timothy Kirkhope, PNR data was "instrumental" in capturing many criminals and terrorists, including some involved in London bombings in 2005 and the 2008 Mumbai terror attackers.

He said PNR data had also "led to the capture of dozens of murderers, pedophiles and rapists" and "95% of all drug captures in Belgium and 85% in Sweden are caught using PNR data."