Do the U.S. and EU Need Couples Therapy?

Disclosures of NSA spying could harm the historic transatlantic relationship, including a massive trade deal that's in the works.
A member of German Piraten Partei (Pirates party) wears a mask with the portrait of Obama sporting Google Glass during a protest in Berlin's Tiergarten district on June 19, 2013. (Pawel Kopczynski/Reuters)

New leaks detailing NSA spying on European delegations have touched a nerve in Berlin, where politicians are calling for Snowden to be given asylum as questions over what Chancellor Angela Merkel knew about Prism grow louder.

Over the weekend, German weekly Der Spiegel cited documents provided by former intelligence analyst Edward Snowden that purportedly showed that the NSA had spied on European Union offices in Brussels, Washington, and New York. Using data taps and computer hacks, the agency gained access to the EU's computer system, email, and confidential documents, the magazine said.

Separately late Sunday, The Guardian cited a 2010 NSA PowerPoint slide that was said to detail how the U.S. had spied on several of its allies, among them Japan, Mexico, South Korea, India, and Turkey.

The strongest reaction so far to this latest news has come from politicians in Berlin, namely the head of Germany's Green Party, Jürgen Trittin, who for the first time broached the issue of offering Snowden asylum in Germany (or elsewhere in the EU).

In an interview with television network ARD, Trittin said, "The Americans criticize the Chinese, but they're acting the same way." He said he thinks Snowden should have safe accommodation in Europe because "he has done Europe a service" and should not "need to seek refuge from despotic regimes that themselves trample on basic rights."

Daryl Lindsey, editor of the English edition of Der Spiegel, told me that Europeans are offended by what appears to be an unabashed NSA program aimed at vacuuming up and storing practically any European data it wants.

"We've seen a document from an internal presentation of the NSA where they describe information superiority as their vision," Lindsey said. "And that's obviously in conflict with using the spying for security purposes, their original justification."

The immediate result of these latest disclosures is threefold. In Germany, a government investigation into what Chancellor Angela Merkel's government knew about Prism will likely come into being this week. In Brussels, kickoff talks on the EU-U.S. trade deal could be hampered or stall out completely over fears that the U.S. government is using its spying system to steal European trade secrets. And, on both sides of the Atlantic, Transatlanticists are struggling to figure out what still binds both sides.

"There is growing pressure in Germany for Chancellor Angela Merkel to take a stance on this," Lindsey said. "She's said very little as this has trickled out over the last two weeks. If it turns out that Germany's intelligence agency, the BND, has been openly cooperating with the NSA in this data collection, this could have very serious constitutional implications here. The government will face legal challenges and there could be political consequences for politicians as well."

Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German EU parliamentarian, told me that he doesn't see the trade deal going anywhere unless the United States addresses the spying issue. Albrecht also suggested that agreements in place on sharing "banking data, airline passenger data, and on mutual legal assistance" could be called into question in the face of "such a dramatic loss of trust."

U.S.-EU policy expert Sergey Lagodinsky suggested that the Obama administration needs to engage in some serious public diplomacy if it hopes to neutralize the harmful effect of what seems to have become a regular, inevitable drip of Snowden leaks.

"I think the administration will have to do serious thinking regarding public diplomacy," Lagodinsky said. "I think what's been broken here through these leaks is the trust of Europe's remaining Transatlanticists. The people who are convinced of the special relationship with the United States are slowly running out of arguments of what unites us, and what kind of values we still share. Substituting those values with trade partnerships and trade commonalities is too thin a base for a true alliance and a true partnership."

Lagodinsky said Europeans are particularly offended by what they perceive as the U.S. government simply ignoring their anger.

"It's important for the United States to understand that there's an identity issue at stake here, a true issue. As in any friendship in a crisis, you can only overcome the crisis by good, open, and transparent therapy. And I think that's what we need -- post-crisis therapy. But this will not substitute substantial improvement in communication and in the way that intelligence is gathered on both sides. Maybe we need to go to something like a framework of treaties or agreements on how and what we need to know about each other's citizens. And what aspects of this intelligence is indeed necessary for security purposes. People just don't trust that there's a security concern here any more."

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Michael Scaturro is a reporter based in Berlin.

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