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EU shocked about alleged surveillance

Christoph Hasselbach / als, sstJuly 2, 2013

Washington is under increasing pressure following reports about US bugging devices in EU buildings in Brussels and the United States. Talks on an EU-US free trade agreement could be under threat.

A general view of the headquarters of the National Security Administration (NSA) in Fort Meade, Maryland, USA (photo: EPA/JIM LO SCALZO dpa)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

European Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen described reports of US spying of European Union embassies as "extremely disturbing." The EU is now demanding answers concerning the allegations. "Clarity and transparency is what we expect from our partners and allies, and this is what we expect from the United States," Ahrenkilde Hansen said.

Yet the United States seems to be side-stepping the issue with EU representatives. When Catherine Ashton, high representative for foreign affairs and security policy for the European Union, addressed the topic with US Secretary of State John Kerry while on a trip to Asia, Kerry said: "I will say that every country in the world that is engaged in international affairs and national security undertakes lots of activities to protect its national security and all kinds of information contributes to that. All I know is that it is not unusual for lots of nations."

EU offices around the world to be checked

Ashton's spokesperson, Michael Mann, actually played down the possible impact of the alleged tapping of EU buildings in Washington and New York. The reports concern time periods from several years ago, and the EU embassies both in Washington and New York have since moved house, and security of the new buildings was of course investigated, he said. But according to spokeswoman Ahrenkilde Hansen, the European Commission President José Manuel Barroso has nonetheless called for an immediate, "comprehensive ad hoc security sweep and check" of EU offices around the world.

Edward Snowden (photo: The Guardian via Getty Images)
Edward Snowden disclosed the US spying practicesImage: The Guardian/Getty Images

The commission spokeswoman was nervous and evasive when it came to the question whether the affair would affect upcoming talks on an EU-US free trade pact. At the moment, she said, the focus is on getting to the bottom of the spying allegations. "It's about nothing else. We don't have any other announcement to make," she said.

The commission has pushed for such a free trade agreement from the very beginning, as it could help with Europe's economic recovery. If negotiations were to stop, one of the commission's prestige projects would be at stake.

And it's quite likely that exactly this is going to happen. "There can be no negotiations or transactions in any area until we have obtained guarantees, for France but also for all of the European Union," French President Francois Hollande said on Monday (01.07.2013). European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said the trade talks could be in jeopardy, saying the EU cannot negotiate "if there is any doubt that our partners are bugging the offices of European negotiators."

The president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, said in an official statement: "I am deeply worried and shocked about the allegations of US authorities spying on EU offices. If the allegations prove to be true, it would be an extremely serious matter which will have a severe impact on EU-US relations. On behalf of the European Parliament, I demand full clarification and require further information speedily from the US authorities with regard to these allegations."

Elmar Brok, European MP and Foreign Affairs Committee Chair, told German news magazine Der Spiegel: "How are you supposed to negotiate if you fear that your own position has been listened in on?"

French President Francois Hollande arrives for the European Council meeting at the EU headquarters in Brussels on June 27, 2013. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso on Thursday announced a political deal on the EU's hotly contested 2014-2020 trillion-euro budget, hours before an EU summit mulls how to get millions of jobless youths back into the workplace. AFP PHOTO / GEORGES GOBET (Photo credit should read GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images)
Hollande said the spying allegations could endanger trade talksImage: Getty Images

European asylum for Snowden?

The Green Party wants to address the issue on Tuesday (02.07.2013) in parliament. Rebecca Harms, co-chair of the Greens in parliament, urged lawmakers to immediately form a special committee. "We can't delay the decision until after summer," she said. The EU should cancel existing agreements with the US in regards to exchanging passenger record and bank transfer data. She also suggested new talks on a trans-Atlantic trade treaty be put on hold, until the breach of international law by the PRISM and Tempora surveillance programs could be discussed. "The last couple of days have shown how desperately we are in need of an international treaty on data security."

Harm's colleague Daniel Cohn-Bendit demanded that the EU grant asylum to former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who disclosed the US spying practices. Cohn-Bendit was full of praise for Snowden who "fought for the rights of European citizens as well." The Greens in parliament would recommend Snowden for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.