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Friends or just allies?

Jeanette Seiffert / dbJuly 9, 2014

Politicians in Berlin are riled up over an affair involving a German intelligence agent suspected of spying for Washington. Many feel it's time Germany acted more independently of the US - and not just in intel.

Angela Merkel & Barack Obama
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Should Germany expel United States intelligence operatives from the country? Expand counter-espionage to the transatlantic partner? Block the transatlantic free trade agreement (TTIP) between the US and the European Union? Or should Angela Merkel and Barack Obama get together in person to discuss the affair in a quiet setting? The political debate about possible consequences of the discovery of an alleged double agent in Germany's BND foreign intelligence service is in full swing. For the time being, Berlin's official approach is: clear up first, act later.

But there is increasing pressure on the government to come up with more just than clear words. Berlin must "take a more resolute approach to the US government," Katrin Göring-Eckardt, head of the Green Party's parliamentary group, told the "Passauer Neue Presse" newspaper.

It's annoying that the government is just boxing around in public "for show," said Hans-Jürgen Puhle, a political scientist at the University of Frankfurt. Instead, "those responsible on both sides should speak plainly."

Puhle thinks the German government should approach the US with clear boundaries, adding that Berlin could have long ago said that of course US diplomats caught spying must leave the country: "That's exactly what the Americans would do!"

Bargaining chip

Current EU negotiations on the TTIP could offer a chance to show more self-confidence.

Soccer fans wearing Merkel and Obama masks
German-US relations: "Take out the emotion!"Image: Getty Images

The accord is questionable for various reasons and has rightfully come under criticism, Puhle said. Wolfgang Bosbach, chairman of the German parliament's interior affairs committee, told German WDR radio the talks need not be suspended, but "we need to add a lengthy chapter on data protection and data safety."

The EU could also threaten to topple the controversial Safe Harbour agreement between the European Commission and the US government, which allows US companies to gather customer information in Europe and deliver it across the Atlantic.

'Like a betrayed wife'

The current diplomatic huff is not likely to make Germans fundamentally rethink their relationship to the US, German publicist Jakob Augstein said. And using the free trade agreement as a means to put pressure on Washington is not a good idea, he added. "If a mosquito bites an elephant, it hurts the mosquito more than the elephant," the publicist argued.

Rather than reacting with rash outrage, Germany should finally say farewell to a few illusions leftover from the post-war era, Augstein told DW. "We have quite a romantic relationship with the US," he said. "We always use the word 'friendship,' but they are not our friends, they are our allies - and they will remain our allies simply because it's in our [mutual] interest."

His advice was to "Simply take out some of the emotion."

In that respect, Germany can learn a lesson from the US, Augstein says: Americans take a more matter-of-fact view, and don't understand why the Germans are so upset. "Germans take it so personally, to a certain degree they act like a betrayed wife," he said. "That's a completely uncalled-for reaction."

Spying on friends

The notion that the German-American relationship is only a strategic alliance is likely to offend transatlantic politicians among German foreign affairs politicians. "Since the Adenauer era, entire generations grew up with the concept that the Americans are our friends, and that we must stand together because they help us against the mean Communists," Puhle told DW.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Willy Brandt 1963 Berlin
Generations of Germans grew up with this certainty: The Americans are our friendsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

That, however, was never the US point of view. "The Americans always had their own interests," he said.

In 2006, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder actually staked out a clear limit when he refused for Germany to participate in the Iraq War. The situation was easier back then, Puhle said, because he thinks the US first approached Germany at that time.

"Today, we have to get the Americans to actively drop something," Puhle said. But in this case, there is not much Germany can do, because "obviously, our intelligence services are not even able to document what exactly the US agencies are up to in Germany."

The BND's lack of independence in the intelligence service field is a mistake, Augstein believes. The German side may be interested in cooperation with the Americans, but "of course the Germans have to protect themselves from US espionage, like they would from Chinese or Russian spies."

Increasingly, German politicians appear to subscribe to that point of view.

Other experts point out that German counter-intelligence might need more funding to keep up with the heavily funded US agency. Roderich Kiesewetter, the conservative head of the committee set up to investigate the activities of the US National Security Agency (NSA) in Germany, was quoted in "Zeit Online" as saying: "The NSA has 120 times more funds than our service does." He added that Germany "cut the wrong corners."