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Snowden gets European support but still remains in limbo

Chase WinterOctober 30, 2015

A European Parliament vote calling for the protection of whistle-blower Edward Snowden from prosecution and extradition is more than symbolic, supporters say. But the resolution is unlikely to help Snowden anytime soon.

Edward Snowden
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

In what supporters called a more than symbolic move, the European Parliament on Thursday passed a non-binding resolution calling on EU governments to protect NSA whistle-blowerEdward Snowden from prosecution and extradition.

In a vote of 285 to 281, the European Parliament urged EU member states to “drop any criminal charges against Edward Snowden, grant him protection and consequently prevent extradition or rendition by third parties, in recognition of his status as whistle-blower and international human rights defender.”

Snowden, the former NSA contractor who leaked millions of documents showing the extent of US and British government bulk surveillance, said on Twitter the vote was a "game-changer."

However, as a non-binding resolution, the vote has no legal impact on EU member states and is unlikely to allow Snowden to leave Russia, where he has been holed up for more than two years. Snowden faces multiple charges under the Espionage Act, which could land him in prison for the rest of his life if he were ever to face trial in the United States.

'Validation of Snowden's disclosures'

Jans Phillip Albrecht, a German MEP with the Green bloc that sponsored the resolution, told DW the vote was more than a symbolic gesture.

"If we wanted to do something symbolic, we would have voted on something that just thanks him," Albrecht said. "This is not a nongovernmental organization like Amnesty International, it is the parliament of the EU," he added. "My impression is that member states can't just ignore this."

The European Parliament resolution comes three weeks after the European Court of Justice voided an agreement used for the past 15 years to deal with the big variances between EU and US data privacy rules. The so-called "Safe Harbor" agreement between the EU and US did not sufficiently guarantee the protection of Europeans' personal data, the EU's top court ruled.

Albrecht said the "Safe Harbor" ruling has changed the dynamics because the court's decision was based on information that came to light from the troves of documents revealed by Snowden, including about US government surveillance of European citizens' data held in servers in the United States.

"This should be reason enough for EU states to determine that he shouldn't be treated as a criminal," Albrecht said.

A former senior NSA executive turned whistle-blower, Thomas Drake, told DW he considered the European Parliament's vote "further confirmation of the Snowden Effect and validation of his concerns and disclosures made in the public interest."

Thomas Drake
Thomas Drake says the vote validates Snowden's actionsImage: Getty Images

Snowden brought to the public and lawmakers' attention "the secret practices of state-sponsored surveillance and mass spying regimes justified under the zero sum game of national security and the real risk they pose to democratic governance, individual privacy and human rights," said Drake.

Snowden still in limbo

As a non-binding resolution, however, the European Parliament's bold statement is unlikely to allow Snowden freedom of movement or asylum in Europe anytime soon.

Klaus Dienelt, a German migration and asylum expert who directs the Internet portal Migration Rights, told DW that "the declaration doesn't really change the legal situation."

Dienelt recalled the fact that Snowden had previously considered testifying before a German parliamentary committee on the NSA's surveillance program - including the spy agency listening in on Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone conversations.

Ultimately, Snowden did not come to Germany because it was unclear whether he would be arrested and extradited to the United States.

A card in support of asylum for Edward Snowden.
Snowden has wide support from German left-wing partiesImage: Getty Images/Afp/Adam Berry

The problem for Snowden, even if he can claim to be a whistle-blower in fear of persecution, is that EU countries require asylum requests to be made inside the country where the asylum seeker would like to take refuge.

Snowden also needs to be careful of airspace, as evinced in 2013 when the US pressured Italy, Spain and France to close their airspaces to Bolivian President Evo Morales' plane on its return from Moscow, after Morales said his country would grant asylum to Snowden. Morales' plane was diverted to Austria and allowed to travel on after it was found Snowden was not on board.

One wrong step and you are in prison

"If you are Edward Snowden you got to be extremely cautious about making any decisions because if you misjudge what a country is going to do you'll end up spending the rest of your life in prison," Peter Zeidenberg, a former US District Attorney, told DW. Zeidenberg was part of the prosecution team that indicted Lewis “Scooter” Libby, an aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney who leaked sensitive CIA information.

Zeidenberg said that from Snowden's perspective, the resolution "might be nice to get a show of support and sympathy," but that beyond the legal considerations within the EU, the United States had a lot of leverage over European countries to force them to hand over one of the US government's most wanted men.

"The fact is when push comes to shove, we know the US has a lot of power and influence over these countries," Zeidenberg said, adding he thinks Snowden will be in "no-man's land in Russia for a very long time."