US President Barack Obama is meeting with Nordic leaders tonight in Stockholm, where he is staying ahead of the G20 meeting in St Petersburg this weekend.
Obama only found the time to make the first ever bilateral meeting of a US president in Sweden after cancelling a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month.
The Putin snub was widely regarded as a reprisal for Russia granting asylum to Edward Snowden, a former member of the National Security Agency (NSA) who exposed the agency’s invasive intelligence gathering strategies.
Questioned about NSA surveillance
But while the official talking points of this evening’s working dinner are climate change, trade and technology, the Snowden question is expected to be raised by Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt (Socialdemokraterne).
“We have always supported having the EU demand answers from the Americans and the EU will get its answers,” Thorning-Schmidt said according to Berlingske newspaper today about revelations that the NSA ran surveillance on EU institutions. “So of course I will mention this to president Obama.”
At a press conference with the Swedish prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, this afternoon, Obama said that the debate about the NSA’s intelligence gathering powers were valid, but that the EU need not worry.
“I can give assurances to the public in Europe and the around the world that we are not snooping on your emails or listening to phone calls, but are targeting specific areas of concern,” Obama said. “Having said that, with changes in technology and the growth of capabilities, if our attitude is that we should do it simply because we can, we may not be addressing some of the legitimate concerns about intelligence gathering and surveillance.”
Thorning-Schmidt and the justice minister, Morten Bødskov (Socialdemokraterne), have been criticised by political rivals for not demanding answers about the extent of the NSA’s surveillance on Danish citizens.
“The justice minister has not done anything despite a number of demands by political parties in parliament,” Karsten Lauritzen, legal spokesperson for Venstre, told DR Nyheder.
At the pre-meeting press conference, the discussion of NSA surveillance was followed by questions about the US’s call for an attack on Syria following last month’s chemical attack that was allegedly carried out by Syrian government forces and which killed over 1,400 civilians including 400 children.
The US says it has firm evidence that the Assad regime was responsible for the attack, which broke international treaties banning the use of chemical warfare.
But Obama’s call for a strike against Assad has so far managed to raise little support, with both the UK and Germany choosing not to support US-led military action without a UN resolution.
Thorning-Schmidt supports military action, however, and will be the US’s only ally when they dine together with leaders from Norway, Finland, Iceland and Sweden tonight.
“I think lots of people are thinking about the scenario after the intervention,” Thorning-Schmidt told Berlingske. “But I think it’s important to remember that an intervention is not necessarily about changing the regime or putting soldiers on the ground. It’s about showing that we will not allow people to use poisonous gasses against their own people.”
Obama reiterated this message at the press conference today, arguing that the credibility of the international community is weakened if the world does not react to the gassing of so many innocent people.
“A government chose to employ these deadly weapons on civilian populations,” Obama said. “The question is what will the international community do when the [the norm not to use chemical weapons] is not observed?”