Judging from the rhetoric alone, it might seem that transatlantic relations are sinking to a low point in the wake of news about alleged spying of the US on its European allies.
French President François Hollande called for the suspension of transatlantic trade talks, set to begin next Monday. European officials across the political spectrum reacted with equal, if not stronger, acrimony, calling the US "Big Brother" and its spy program, revealed by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, a vestige of the cold war.
But behind angry admonishments, Europe has agreed to move forward with Monday’s talks on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). And although European officials have demanded the US address its concerns over spying and privacy – those talks are also set to begin within days – few expect this most recent revelation to be insurmountable. In fact, many European nations, thrust further into the affair this week when suspicions that Mr. Snowden was aboard a Bolivia-bound airplane that was diverted to Vienna as it traveled from Russia, have acknowledged that they also spy, with France at the center of attention.
Eric Denécé, director of the French Center for Intelligence Studies and a former military intelligence analyst, says he expects the spying allegations on Europe to be little more than a political blip, though he differentiates between intergovernmental spying and Snowden’s revelations of surveillance of American citizens through the PRISM program.
“For 40 or 50 years, we absolutely know the US intelligence agency is listening to everybody, including France,” he says. “This is absolutely normal. It’s the job of intelligence agencies to listen to [one] another.”
French politicians have been among the angriest in terms of reaction, calling for the TTIP negotiations to be put on hold. But in the wake of their criticism of US action, they have faced a barrage of their own.
Revelations of French domestic spying
Le Monde published Thursday a report alleging widespread intelligence spying in France, similar to the US PRISM program. France’s leading daily paper, whose report received widespread international media coverage, alleges that such acts are "outside the law, and beyond any proper supervision.”
And while the European Union Parliament condemned American spying, it rejected Thursday a suspension of TTIP negotiations, as France had sought. Instead it urged trade talks to go forward, as planned, according to a statement.
It acknowledged growing issues of spying among its own member states as well. “Parliament also expresses grave concern about allegations that similar surveillance programs are run by several EU member states, such as the UK, Sweden, The Netherlands, Germany, and Poland. It urges them to examine whether those programs are compatible with EU law.”
Meanwhile, US-German ties are under stress amid revelations that the United States spied on Germany more than on any other EU country. Germans are particularly wary about state-driven snooping, given the widespread surveillance under the Stasi in East Germany and earlier under Nazi Germany.
President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed Thursday to a high-level meeting among both nations to discuss US actions.
However, Sergey Lagodinsky, head of the EU/North America department of the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Berlin, says that the real damage to the transatlantic relationship at this point is among the citizenry. “The damage is not intergovernmental, but within our population,” he says. “[The scandal] has made clear to a wide number of citizens that the rhetoric of alliance and partnership is not followed by a degree of mutual trust.”
That sentiment is clear in a recent German poll showing that, in the wake of Snowden’s revelations, only 49 percent of Germans say Americans can be trusted as partners, down from 65 percent, according to ARD-DeutschlandTrend.
Indeed, while Dr. Denécé, the intelligence analyst, says he expects the spying allegations on the EU to become muted, revelations from Snowden on the PRISM program should be a concern to all amid a general decline of democracy in the US since the Patriot Act, he says. “Now we discover that all US citizens are under electronic surveillance,” he says. He calls this a threat to the world at large. “This is dangerous for democracy as a whole.”
For now, it’s hard to know Europe’s exact position on Snowden, among many contradictions.
Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think tank, wrote in The Telegraph that France’s condemnation and call to suspend trade talks is “pretty hilarious, given France's penchant for stealing American defense technology, bugging American business executives and generally annoying US counterintelligence officials. If you've been paying attention, you know that France is a proficient, notorious and unrepentant economic spy.”
Positions became even murkier earlier this week when Bolivian President Evo Morales was forced to land in Austria, after several European countries, including France, reportedly refused to allow the plane through their air space on suspicion that Snowden had left Russia, where he's been holed up as he unsuccessfully seeks asylum somewhere. It has led to accusations that the US is influencing countries behind the scenes, though it is unclear what access was denied by Europe and why.
If it’s confirmed that the French bowed to American pressure in the incident, says Denécé, “it is absolutely a contradiction” that will hurt President Hollande.