By Justin Lesniak
The media is abuzz with the release of details regarding the National Security Administration’s (NSA) espionage on some of the United States’ traditional European allies. Over the last several decades, an alliance between the United States and Western Europe has been taken by most of the world as a given; the countries are even collectively known as “The West”. However, the latest allegations of spying show a lack of trust building between the U.S and Europe and risks increasing the separation between these historical allies.
Reports have emerged over the last week that the National Security Administration has been spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The German magazine Der Spiegel suggests that such spying might have been done as far back as 2002 and that there may be undocumented spying facilities inside the U.S. embassy in Berlin. The German government is understandably not happy. The German foreign minister has summoned the U.S. ambassador to indicate the severity of the situation and Merkel has personally called President Obama to express outrage at the situation.
This comes after the previous revelation that the NSA had been spying on French citizens. Reports claim that millions of French citizens had their personal phone calls recorded, SMS text messages logged, and so-called “metadata” about who they were calling (and from where) recorded. It is likely that French president Francois Hollande also had his calls monitored. Talk of U.S. spying even took over the EU summit in Brussels this past week. In what was supposed to be a forum for the discussion of tax and immigration issues, leaders instead spent significant time talking about allegations of espionage, issuing a statement that condemned the broad scope of U.S. intelligence collection. In addition, Spain has also called to speak with the U.S. ambassador over allegations that the NSA spied on 60 million Spanish citizens in a 1-month period. Reports also suggest that the U.S. and Great Britain were spying on Italian government officials, companies and ordinary citizens.
These countries are not only some of the United States’ most important European partners, but they are also major member states of the EU. A breakdown of relations between the United States and these countries would surely limit U.S.-EU cooperation, be it economic, political or social. It remains to be seen how strongly these revelations will impact the so called “transatlantic relationship” but they certainly do not help slow the steady decline of this bond in recent years.
This rough patch in U.S.-EU relations has been building for some time, and is deeply rooted in differences of culture and opinion. Many have noted that Europe’s values are not exactly in line with those of the United States. Europe is more reluctant to make any decisions too rashly or to engage in unilateral acts; they are generally more willing to seek compromise. The EU itself is an institution that embodies cordial discussion and debate culture, as evidenced by its hosting of endless summits and discussions. The U.S. and the EU differ greatly with regard to many issues including climate change, the death penalty, warfare and more recently, the accessibility of American genetically modified crops in Europe, which has threatened to stall free trade negotiations between the two.
The fact that Europeans have long valued data protection more than their American counterparts has intensified the backlash against these new spying allegations. In fact, they have already resulted in detrimental policy outcomes for the United States. The European Parliament has just voted to halt America’s access to European financial transaction information (used to track the flow of terrorist money) out of fear that the U.S. is using this data to protect its economic and security interests.
All this is not to say that the United States and Europe are becoming enemies, but rather that the historical relationship between the United States and Europe as definitive allies seems to be breaking down. The latest revelations—that the United States felt the need to spy on its long time European allies—all but admit, at least from the American perspective, that trust is lacking. Yet there is much to be gained from maintaining a strong alliance with Europe. U.S. leaders ought to consider the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of American policy without a strong, reliable ally in Europe, especially as the world grows more complicated with the emergence of new powers like China and India. In traditional European fashion, even after allegedly having their privacy violated, European leaders still want to trust the United States. They have requested a meeting with President Obama to discuss the spying issue and come to an agreement. This is an opportunity to rebuild the trust that has been the backbone of a strong U.S.-EU alliance. The U.S. should take advantage before a historical friendship completely disintegrates.
Image by the Electronic Frontier Foundation