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Sensitive issues

Bernd Riegert / dbOctober 25, 2013

Spying among friends is not unusual - but spying on the head of a government is taking things a step too far. However, DW's Bernd Riegert believes lack of EU unity means the US will not face serious consequences.


It's the stuff spy thrillers are made of: Merkel and Hollande on a secret mission in the capital of the most powerful man in the world! What did Obama know? When did he know it? And why did he do it? The monitored chancellor and her aide force the American bad guys - who are in fact their friends - to impose a code of conduct on the intelligence services.

But it's a scenario that's likely to remain in the realms of fiction. So what will happen in reality? The chancellor and the French president will meet their American counterpart for the talks planned at this week's EU summit, and they will try to establish some degree of transparency.

Riegert, Bernd Deutschland/Chefredaktion REGIONEN, Hintergrund Deutschland. Bernd Riegert war am 11. September 2001 DW-Korrespondent in Washington, D.C., USA. DW3_8228. Foto DW/Per Henriksen 19.04.2013
Bernd Riegert is DW's Europe correspondent in Brussels

There will not, however, be any publicly negotiated agreements on what intelligence agencies on both sides of the Atlantic are allowed to do. That goes against the nature of the beast. The purpose of an intelligence service is to do things that are illegal in the country it's targeting.

Furthermore, the French and German leaders do not speak for the European Union. There is no joint European stance, only a vague declaration the delegates at the summit spent hours wrestling with. It merely states that the Americans are good friends, and notes that there is concern - without criticizing, let alone making accusations.

Europe not responsible for Merkel's mobile

The main reason for this is that European secret services, and thus many governments, benefit from the spying activities of the NSA and CIA. No one wants to endanger a cooperation aimed at preventing potential danger just because the chancellor's insecure private mobile phone may have been tapped. British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose intelligence services cooperate particularly closely with the US, prevented tougher wording on the EU statement. EU member states regard spying as a sovereign national matter. The EU has no authority - it's every country for itself.

The fuss in Brussels is also somewhat hypocritical. Now that a top politician is personally affected, delegations are being dispatched to a friendly nation. Yet it was already established months ago that US intelligence services snooped on millions of European citizens in Germany, France and elsewhere. The chancellor ignored the problem for far too long - until she herself was directly affected.

Not a big surprise

Intelligence service experts know perfectly well that the European services also spy, snoop and wiretap abroad, among both friends and foes. To prevent terrorist attacks, American and European services then share their findings: after 9/11, a liaison office was established outside Paris for precisely that purpose. The exchange allows the agencies to circumvent legal barriers they may be subject to in their own countries.

Trust has been lost, and must be won back, said Merkel and many top EU politicians in Brussels. Friends shouldn't be spied on. This is a rather naive notion: it is hardly news that agencies are also active in friendly states. Instead, European leaders should be worrying about what potential opponents, like China, Iran and Russia, are spying on in Europe. This could really cause damage.

What insight can the US glean by listening in on Merkel's partisan small talk on her CDU party phone? The comments made by US President Barack Obama on his last visit to Germany are probably closer to the truth: that if he wanted to know what Merkel was thinking, he'd simply give her a call, not ask the NSA.

Merkel's mission won't harm ties

The European Union will not cancel the agreement to share a large amount of banking data collected via SWIFT, nor will it suspend talks on a free trade agreement. This is the right decision, as such a drastic reaction really would do lasting damage to relations with the US. On their "mission impossible" in Washington, Merkel and Hollande should urge Obama to reduce the NSA's activities to a reasonable scale. Eavesdropping on Merkel, if it in fact happened, was superfluous.

It probably comes down to the agents' competitive spirit. Following their president's motto that "Yes, we can," they tried to hack the mobile of the most powerful woman in the world - just because they could. What is far more shocking is the mass analysis of data collected from regular European citizens for no real reason.