Europe should ensure it has its house in order on surveillance

Analysis: spying allegations have exposed a fissure at the heart of EU-US relations

European Parliament president Martin Schulz stole a march on the European Commission by responding to the surveillance allegations early on Sunday, during a typically quiet news period. Photograph: Reuters/Jean-Marc Loos

European Parliament president Martin Schulz stole a march on the European Commission by responding to the surveillance allegations early on Sunday, during a typically quiet news period. Photograph: Reuters/Jean-Marc Loos

Tue, Jul 2, 2013, 09:47

Reports in Der Spiegel and the Guardian that America’s surveillance tactics extended to its European allies may have ignited a diplomatic row between the EU and the US, but it has also injected the drab world of Brussels bureaucracy with some light relief. The image of undercover security personnel carrying out sweeps of the innocuous-looking Justus Lipsius building in Brussels is a welcome distraction from the usual chatter about the financial crisis.

The controversy also incited unusually colourful language from European Commission officials. For an institution known for its acronyms and jargon-laden terminology, the no-nonsense terms “spies” and “eavesdropping” featured in most official communications on the topic yesterday.


Shocking news
But the biggest shock is the level of surprise that EU leaders appear to have registered at the news. The EU’s apparent lack of awareness of the extent and detail of US surveillance has exposed a fissure at the heart of the EU-US relationship. The practices revealed appear to have genuinely surprised the European Union, despite the barely-veiled insinuation from the US that such practices are part and parcel of protecting national interests.

In terms of global international relations, the revelations will leave America open to charges of growing isolationism, something the Obama administration will be keen to play down. But the piqued – and very public – response of senior EU figures will no doubt have been welcomed by the West’s many detractors, keen to see cracks in the transatlantic relationship.

The US undoubtedly has questions to answer, but the import of the European Union response should not be overstated. It is unsurprising that François Hollande was the only head of state to comment publicly on the controversy, implying that the EU-US trade negotiations could be under threat.

France has always been luke-warm towards the idea of an EU-US free trade agreement. Having threatened to pull the plug on the negotiations, it successfully managed last month to exclude the so-called “cultural exception” from the EU’s negotiating mandate. France’s agricultural sector is also keenly against any deal that could jeopardise French competitiveness.

Similarly, the response of the European Union institutions could also be seen as an attempt to assert authority.

The European Commission has come under intense criticism in recent weeks, with a number of French ministers strongly criticising the Commission’s handling of the crisis and, in particular, the style of European Commission president José Manuel Barroso. The strong language and up-front response from Brussels to the US surveillance claims could be read as an attempt to show a man and an institution in control.

In the world of EU institutional rivalry, it also may be seen as an attempt to reclaim control of the controversy after European Parliament president Martin Schulz stole the march on the European Commission by responding to the claim early on Sunday, during a typically quiet news period.

The strongly worded response of EU leaders yesterday contrasted with the low-key response by the US.

The US has an obvious motivation in playing down the crisis: it is the country accused of clandestine practices. But the wisdom of jeopardising the nascent EU-US trade deal that has already involved years of painstaking diplomacy is questionable. Europe must also ensure that its own house is in order before it assumes the worst of the US.

Playing out its frustrations in public is not a tactic that sits well with diplomacy. As the EU and US confront their biggest diplomatic challenge in some time, honing those diplomatic skills will be a necessity.