Hollande leads criticism of US spying

French president calls on US to explain its behaviour and cease surveillance

The controversy over alleged United States surveillance of European Union institutions escalated yesterday, with French president François Hollande leading recriminations against the US, describing the alleged behaviour as unacceptable.

While Mr Hollande was the only head of state to comment publicly on the reports, Berlin, Paris and the European Commission in Brussels sought explanation from US ambassadors in the respective capitals. The controversy has threatened to overshadow the nascent EU-US trade talks.

With talks on an ambitious transatlantic trade agreement scheduled to begin next week in Washington, Mr Hollande hinted the negotiations could be under threat. “We can only have negotiations, transactions, in all areas, once we have obtained these guarantees for France, but that goes for the whole European Union and I would say for all partners of the United States,” he said, calling on the US to explain its practices and cease surveillance immediately.

“We cannot accept this kind of behaviour from partners and allies,” he added.


'Mutual trust'
A spokesman for German chancellor Angela Merkel said that while Germany wanted an EU-US free trade deal, "mutual trust is necessary in order to come to an agreement".

“If it is confirmed that diplomatic representations of the European Union and individual European countries have been spied upon, we will clearly say that bugging friends is unacceptable,” the spokesman said.

The European Commission called for “clarity and transparency” from the US.

“The commission is now expecting to hear from the US authorities,” a spokeswoman said.

“Clarity and transparency is what we expect from our partners and allies and this is what we expect from the United States.” She also confirmed that, following the allegations, commission president José Manuel Barroso had ordered an “ad hoc security sweep and shake” of sensitive European Union premises.

Catherine Ashton, head of the European External Action Services (EEAS), the EU foreign policy and diplomatic arm, raised that matter with US secretary of State John Kerry yesterday in Brunei, where they were attending a security conference.

'Urgent clarification'
Noting that the EEAS had contacted the US authorities on Sunday seeking "urgent clarification", Ms Ashton said there would be no further comments until the matter was clarified. "The US authorities have told us they are checking on the accuracy of the information released yesterday and will come back to us as soon as possible," she said.

Mr Kerry played down the reports, saying almost all countries use “lots of activities” to safeguard their interests and security.

“I will say that every country in the world that is engaged in international affairs and national security undertakes lots of activities to protect its national security and all kinds of information contributes to that. All I know is that is not unusual for lots of nations,” he said, adding that he did not know the details of the allegations.

European concern at the surveillance tactics used by the US was ignited by reports in German publication Der Spiegel and the Guardian that the US had covertly infiltrated telecommunication channels of the EU institutions in Washington, New York and Brussels, as well as national member states.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent