Open Europe Blog

To what extent have the latest leaks harmed the EU-US trade talks?

Fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leaks just keep giving.

First there was Prism, then Tempora. And now, as reported by online by German magazine Der Spiegel over the weekend:  the US has allegedly been spying on EU missions and institutions on both sides of the Atlantic.

Here’s a round-up the European response at the national and EU levels:


The leaks have caused the most outrage in Germany, which was allegedly monitored more than other countries, leading the Federal government to respond on Monday.

“If it is confirmed that diplomatic representations of the European Union and individual European countries have been spied upon, we will clearly say that bugging friends is unacceptable…We are no longer in the Cold War”, said a government spokesman in Berlin. He added that Chancellor Merkel will soon be speaking to President Obama about the matter.

Other German politicians that had been clamouring for a US explanation include German President Joachim Gauck (who quoted Benjamin Franklin: “Those who give up liberty to gain security will lose both'”), Vice-Chancellor Philipp Roesler and Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger. The SPD, the Greens and Die Linke had also been agitating for Chancellor Merkel to intervene.

France isn’t happy either, with French President François Hollande calling for an end to the alleged spying.”We cannot accept this kind of behaviour between partners and allies,” Hollande said. “We ask that this stop immediately.”

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the reports were “completely unacceptable,” if corroborated, while his colleague, Christiane Taubira, the Justice Minister,  called US actions “an act of unqualified hostility.”

Italy’s Defence Minister Mario Mauro weighed in this morning, saying that US-Italian relations would be “compromised,” if the reports are true. “If we are allies, if we are friends, [then] it’s not acceptable that someone in this relationship behaves like the Soviet Union used to behave towards its satellite states,” he added.


EU officials, political groups and MEPs are miffed too.

Catherine Ashton, The EU’s foreign policy chief said that EU is seeking  “urgent clarification.” While Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, said he was “deeply worried” by the reports, an warned of a “severe impact” on EU-US relations if they are true (remember, the EP’s role in EU trade talks was enhanced under the Lisbon Treaty).

Schulz told French radio station France 2 that the US had crossed a line,”I was always sure that dictatorships, some authoritarian systems, tried to listen … but that measures like that are now practiced by an ally, by a friend, that is shocking, in the case that it is true.”

This was echoed by Viviane Reding,  the EU justice commissioner: “Partners do not spy on each other,” she said. “We cannot negotiate over a big transatlantic market if there is the slightest doubt that our partners are carrying out spying activities on the offices of our negotiators.”

“How should we still negotiate [a free trade agreement with the US] if we must fear that our negotiating position is being listened to beforehand?” said Elmar Brok, the chairman of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

In an interview, Czech MEP Libor Roucek, the deputy chairman of the S&D group for Foreign Affairs and Transatlantic Relations, said he “can’t exclude the option that [he’s] being monitored by the US secret services.”
Some went further, calling for a suspension of the US-EU trade talks altogether. This included the European Parliament’s Green Group, and MEPs like the Dutch social democrat Thijs Berman: “[The] US spies on EU diplomats. That’s not how we can negotiate a free trade deal. Suspending is logical step,” he tweeted on Sunday.

The revelations have caused an uproar in the European press (Le Parisien’s ‘hammy’ front page of Obama ‘listening in’ captures the general drift), and most of all in Germany. 

Spiegel Online published a commentary today that not only criticised America, but also the lack of action by the government.“The federal government has failed to protect Germans from America’s spy-attacks. This is unacceptable to citizens,” it says, calling for an “independent education”  for the US from the German Constitutional Court and a European Committee.

Meanwhile, Austrian Daily Der Standard published a commentary that diverged from the general thrust of European media feeling. Spying is to be expected says the piece: “It would be surprising indeed if the opposite were the case. Being spied on by an ally is about as normal as the systematic surveillance of political opponents.”
Perhaps Der Standard is right that much of this skulduggery does go on, even amongst allies. But, still, although this is unlikely to deal a fatal blow to EU-US trade talks, the political consequences could well be that certain European countries dig their heels in a little firmer in the negotiations.

On a more general note, for individuals concerned about their privacy and civil liberties, this type of issue only heightens fears that the increasing amount of personal data shared among EU governments isn’t safe and that the protections are inadequate.

In recent years the EU has been developing more and more data sharing databases, and it is not always clear to the general public what happens to their data – this will only fuel ‘big brother’-type fears that is open to misuse, abuse or simply could be accessed by anyone.

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