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Spying split

Michael KniggeJuly 8, 2014

The latest episode in the transatlantic spy saga has triggered a debate how Germany can push the US to change its ways on intelligence gathering. While many curious ideas have surfaced only one option is realistic.

Symbolbild Flaggen USA & EU & Deutschland
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The answer to the question what Berlin can do to make Washington alter its intelligence and surveillance activities vis-à-vis Germany requires just one word: nothing.

"I think there is very little scope for Germany to get preferential treatment that the United States would not be able to offer other countries under the current system", says Alister Miskimmon, a German expert and head of Royal Holloway, University of London's politics and international relations department.

Not a 'German thing'

The US will not exempt Germany from its global intelligence gathering apparatus and has said so pretty much straight from the start. "The US has been clear that the idea of a no-spy agreement is just not on", says Daniel Hamilton, executive director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. "It's not a German thing; it's just the idea."

And from the global perspective of a superpower, the US position is only logical and was to be expected. After all if Germany - which is not even a member of the Anglo-American five eyes spy club - would get preferential treatment why shouldn't every other US ally across the globe?

So the expectations raised by talk about a no-spy agreement were unrealistic to begin with and it has been difficult for Berlin to lower the transatlantic temperature ever since, particularly with constantly new details about US mass surveillance coming to light.

NSA Symbolbild
Berlin has failed to reach a bilateral no spy deal with WashingtonImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But the fact is that Germany has no leverage to make the US change its behavior.

"Things are changing, but it's not going to be driven by a German peak," notes Hamilton. He points to the Obama administration's plans to give EU citizens judicial redress in the US on perceived intelligence problems and on moves in Congress to curb American intelligence services. "It's part of a broader process in the US. There will be a swing of the pendulum back, but it's not going to happen overnight."

Anger management

None of the ideas that have surfaced to try to punish or push the US like granting asylum to Edward Snowden, expelling diplomats or breaking off the transatlantic trade talks (TTIP) are likely to do anything to change US behavior or speed up the slow legislative process in Washington.

"What do we want to achieve?" asks Sebastian Harnisch, professor for foreign policy at the University of Heidelberg. "Threatening or sanctioning the US government in public in order to get something will not make the US do that because that would have repercussions for all its global relationships." What's more, these actions might backfire, because Germany arguably is at least as dependent on the US as vice versa.

Aside from "getting its own house in order" as Harnisch demands "because since the crisis has unfolded we have learned that German security agencies have not been very alert to the fact that the US is spying on Germany and on the chancellor", there is only viable route for Berlin to influence US intelligence gathering. That route leads via Brussels.

German influence in the EU

"Germany's probably best strategy going forward is to try to have more influence over the EU-US relationship, over things like TTIP and Safe Harbor and strengthening those rather than pursuing bilateral assurances", argues Miskimmon. "I think Germany's influence within the EU over wider EU-USA relations is where Germany probably can get more assurances."

"Right now Germany engages in public blaming and shaming with the US although its European partners may be part of this equation too", adds Harnisch. "So it would be wise to talk to the other Europeans and then think about what kind of actions they should take."

And while there is no formal linkage between the various EU-US treaties currently under negotiation, there clearly is a political linkage, says Hamilton: "It has to be very clear to the administration that if they want TTIP to be ratified, they will have to -- at the same time -- ratify a satisfactory US-EU data protection agreement that could be ratified not only by the EU parliament, but by member states."

Verhandlungen über Freihandelsabkommen TTIP zwischen USA und EU 23.05.
Germany should use TTIP negotiations to make its voice heardImage: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

But even to push the EU towards a tough common stance on privacy vis-à-vis the US is no shoo-in given the UK's close ties with the US in terms of intelligence gathering and sharing. Still, the best route for Berlin to push Washington to modify its surveillance activities leads through Brussels.