Merkel’s telephone controversy casts a shadow over the European summit

  • American eavesdropping on the Chancellor’s telephone fueled all the conversations at the summit that began Thursday.
  • Those conversations happened mostly in the hallways rather than in the meetings.

It was a nice little grenade thrown Thursday by the German magazine Der Spiegel, and it enlivened the opening of the European summit, which had looked to be peaceful if not boring. The news that the NSA, an American intelligence agency, tapped into German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone became the only topic of conversation and of questions posed to heads of state and government as they arrived at the Justus Lipsius building on Schumann Circle. “That kind of thing is not done between friends,” the chancellor commented soberly. She called the American president on Wednesday to communicate her displeasure. Arriving a few minutes earlier, Belgian prime minister Elio Di Rupo enlarged on the issue, “We cannot accept this espionage no matter who is doing it.” He continued to say that, “measures must be taken.” No doubt that will not happen during the summit.

The incident caused feelings to run high, but it was difficult to imagine on what basis (media reports?) the 28 European leaders could discuss espionage of which they themselves were the victims. “No one likes being eavesdropped on, legally or illegally, but I don’t know what we can do on the European level, There is no European legislation against it,” said Finnish prime minister Jirki Katainen. Clearly, questions of national security are eminently national matters, difficult to unpack and dissect publicly and even less so in the context of European-style shared sovereignty.

Was the subject therefore “completely anecdotal in the summit setting,” as a member of one delegation told us? Not completely, and the European Commission, through its president Jose Manuel Barroso and Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding, skillfully took advantage of the “Merkel’s telephone” incident to push an issue onto the agenda: the directive on the protection of privacy. The new European legislature’s plan, developed by Madame Reding’s services, has been widely criticized by associations that think it doesn’t go far enough in the protection of rights, but also by member states, the United Kingdom in particular, who think that it imposes too many obstacles to developing small and medium-sized businesses in the digital industry.

Returning to the incident of the day, Viviane Reding argued, “The protection of data must apply to everyone, whether we are talking about an individual’s emails or the chancellor’s telephone.” It was an adept way of shifting the subject of espionage to that of data protection, which is concerned with the security of online credit card transactions. “The protection of private data raises the issue of a fundamental right in Europe,” a continent which, not so long ago, had “totalitarian” regimes that spied on their citizens. Summit leaders tied the subject to the European Council’s official theme, the development of the digital economy, which depends on people’s confidence in the Internet. Barroso and Reding called for their directive to be adopted before the end of the current legislative session of the European parliament (May 2014) and not before the end of next year, as European Council president Herman Van Rompuy has proposed. However, people were saying outside the meetings that Angela Merkel, who is in favor of the controversial directive, would also take advantage of the affair to encourage the speedy adoption of the text.

There remains a basic question. Is there still basic trust between historical allies Europe and the United States? That question was crudely put by European Parliament president Martin Schulz: “What would the Americans say if they found out that a European intelligence service was eavesdropping on the president of the United States?” Mr. Schulz wants to clarify whether the Euro-American strategic partnership rests on “shared democratic values.” To do that, the European Parliament president proposes no less than suspending the brand new negotiations on the major free trade agreement between the EU and the USA.


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