Europe furious over US spying
- Published: 24 Oct 2013 at 21.49
- Online news:
Europe's leaders united Thursday behind furious Germany and France as an escalating row over claims of US snooping on its traditional allies overshadowed an EU summit.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) is greeted by French President Francois Hollande
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose mobile phone reportedly was the latest target of covert surveillance by the US National Security Agency (NSA), set the tone.
"Spying between friends, that's just not done," she said as she joined leaders of the 28-nation European Union for a summit initially called to discuss boosting employment and the digital economy.
"We need trust between partners and such trust needs to be re-established."
The German chancellor met with French President Francois Hollande on the sidelines of the summit, with a French diplomatic source saying they would discuss "how to coordinate their response" to the eavesdropping allegations.
The meeting came amid a fresh slew of damaging revelations on phone-tapping as The Guardian said US spies eavesdropped on the phone conversations of 35 world leaders after White House, Pentagon and State Department officials gave them the numbers.
A classified 2006 document provided by fugitive intelligence leaker Edward Snowden said the NSA worked closely with the "customer" departments of the US government to secure the phone numbers of leading foreign politicians.
Hollande and Merkel phoned President Barack Obama this week demanding clarification over claims the NSA spied on millions of French phone calls, and on the German leader personally.
But in Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney refused to say whether Washington had listened in on Merkel in the past.
The White House has been on tricky political ground since saying when the claims first surfaced on Wednesday that it is not monitoring Merkel's communications and will not do so.
"We are not going to comment publicly on every specified alleged intelligence activity," Carney said.
"The path that leads us down is not one that we can travel."
US officials habitually refuse to discuss intelligence issues and espionage allegations as a matter of policy.
"We want the truth," said Italian Premier Enrico Letta in Brussels, as leaders of Belgium, Finland, Malta and others told reporters that Washington must provide an explanation and Europe must take a joint stand to protect its citizens.
The EU executive, the European Commission, called for "a united stand" as 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," said EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding. "Now is the time for action and not only for declarations at the EU summit."
Merkel has warned that proof of snooping on her phone would be considered a "breach of trust".
The NSA affair has also seen claims of US snooping on foreign leaders in Mexico and Brazil, whose President Dilma Rousseff last month cancelled a state visit to Washington over the scandal.
The White House is struggling to stem the diplomatic damage.
In Germany, the head of the SPD party, Sigmar Gabriel -- currently in talks with Merkel to form a coalition government -- said the snooping threatened talks to seal a trans-Atlantic free trade deal seen as the biggest in history.
'Espionage is not an EU matter'
As the row widened, European Parliament president Martin Schulz also suggested a pause in the trade talks in the case of wrong-doing, while MEPs have asked for a key EU-US bank data-sharing deal aimed at fighting terrorism to be suspended.
It remains uncertain whether EU leaders will come up with a common stand in response to the outcry.
Many, notably Britain with its close intelligence links to the US, and Spain, see spying as a matter of national interest firmly outside the bloc's remit.
Many also spy on each other. Italian weekly L'Espresso said Britain and the US spied on Italy to glean data on underwater fibre-optic cables, with the consent of Italy's own secret services.
The White House's Carney too pointed out that all nations spy on each other.
"We acknowledge that the United States gathers intelligence much as other nations gather foreign intelligence," he said.
An EU diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity said, "I don't imagine the (EU) Council getting into a discussion on national security."
"Espionage is not an EU matter, it's an issue of national sovereignty," said another diplomat.
But as anger boiled up in Europe, Commission head Barroso said: "We in Europe consider the right to privacy as a fundamental right."
At the summit, officially themed around boosting employment and the digital economy, leaders will also tackle a complex immigration crisis highlighted by this month's deaths of hundreds of refugees desperate to reach Europe's shores