Ahead of the EU summit in Brussels, Germany’s Angel Merkel and France’s Francois Hollande have discussed wiretapping of their communications by America’s NSA. The scandal could push a frustrated EU to change data privacy rules.
The EU summit starting Thursday is expected to be hijacked by recent revelations provided by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, which infuriated both Berlin and Paris.
On the same day the summit kicks off, Germany announced it had information that allied US National Security Service had monitored Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal phone. Earlier, France learnt from reports in Le Monde that the NSA has been recording dozens of millions of phone calls, including those of the French authorities.
Spying between friends ‘just not done’
The fallout from the revelations was prompt and direct. Merkel, on arriving for a two-day EU summit in Brussels, said that such conduct between friends was unacceptable.
“Spying between friends – that’s just not done,” she said as quoted by the Associated Press.
“I said that to US President Barack Obama when he came to Berlin and again on the phone (Wednesday),” Merkel said.
She added that trust between Washington and its partners has to be restored following the allegations.
“We need trust between partners and such trust needs to be re-established,” Merkel said.
Earlier, the German chancellor made a phone call to US President Barack Obama to sort out if her phone was tapped, while Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle summoned the US ambassador to explain the situation.
In a strongly-worded statement issued Wednesday, Merkel’s spokesman shared some details of the phone call with Obama. “She made clear that she views such practices, if proven true, as completely unacceptable and condemns them unequivocally,” the spokesman said.
Washington, which has been left at loggerheads with many of its allies due to Snowden’s revelations, deployed White House spokesman Jan Carney, who said that President Obama had done his best to reassure the German Chancellor, telling Merkel that the US “is not monitoring and will not monitor” her communications.
Carney also said that “the United States is not monitoring the communications of the [German] chancellor.”
But neither Obama nor Carney actually confirmed or denied that Merkel’s phone had been tapped previously.
“I’m not in a position to comment publicly on every specific alleged intelligence activity,” Carney said.
The French government is similarly upset with Washington. President François Hollande has not said whether his personal phone has been hacked by Washington, but the report that in just one month, between December 10, 2012, and January 8, 2013, the NSA managed to record 70.3 million French phone calls could not be shrugged off.
President Hollande has insisted that the phone tapping must be on the Brussels summit’s agenda.
‘We want the truth’
Other European nations united behind Germany and France as the spying scandal overshadowed a key EU summit being held in Brussels.
Leaders of Italy, Belgium, Finland, Malta and other states said that Washington must provide an explanation over the allegations and Europe must take a joint stand to protect its citizens.
“We want the truth,” Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta said.
The European Commission called for “a strong and united stand,” while its President Jose Manuel Barroso warned against a slide towards “totalitarianism”.
“Data protection must apply no matter if it concerns the emails of citizens or the mobile phone of Angela Merkel,” he said.
Meanwhile, EU Parliament President Martin Schulz said he was not confident that German intelligence services were not spying on the White House.
“I cannot be sure that German special services are not tapping Barack Obama,” he said, adding that “it would be interesting” to see Washington’s reaction if that was the case.
EU Justice Commissioner underlined that data protection should apply no matter whether it concerns the emails of citizens or Merkel’s mobile phone. “Now is the time for action and not only for declarations at the EU summit,” Viviane Reding said.
The 28 members of the EU could speed up the adoption of amendments to the bloc’s data protection rules, set in 1995, AFP reported Thursday.
This could seriously complicate life of American companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo! and others that have been exposed as voluntarily sharing private data communications with the US secret services.
The new amendments would enable EU citizens to demand that IT companies erase traces of personal data from the internet. Stricter data protection rules would be applied to international electronic money transferring systems, such as the Europe-based SWIFT, also used by the US security agencies for collecting personal data on EU citizens.
In case the communication giants do not abide by the new regulations, fines could be as hefty as 100 million euros.
The potential regulations could make personal data collection in Europe impracticable financially. US communication giants have been furiously lobbying against the amendments.
Given the angry reactions of Berlin and Paris to US surveillance, the EU could put new data protection rules in place as early as 2015.