Put your foot down, Europe

Snowden revelations should cause European leaders to seriously rethink their relationships with the US

Charles de Gaulle’s observation that “a state has no friends” is rarely more readily understood than when the work of intelligence agencies is exposed. This happens rarely, of course, but Edward Snowden’s revelations have given us an unprecedented look into intelligence operations. The US has spied on targets that include EU agencies and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. Nevertheless, national leaders almost on a daily basis speak of the “close and unbreakable friendship between our countries”. American presidents have all but turned this type of rhetoric into an art form. Snowden’s revelations, as well as information revealed by Wikileaks, expose their emptiness and their hypocrisy. The have also shown European rhetoric about ‘unity’ to be nothing but empty words. 

Whether it was in July, when the revelations were first made, or now, we can see that Europe is clearly divided. Merkel and France want American spying to come to an end. Others are less adamant. Most accommodating of the Americans has been our own prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt (S). 

“We have no evidence to indicate that we have been the targets of illegal surveillance,” is her scripted reply. In other words, what she’s trying to say is it doesn’t appear we’ve been spied on, so let the others deal with whatever problems they may or may not have. Solidarity? What’s that?

Of course, in her defence, representatives from all 28 EU countries did make a joint declaration about US espionage. The document is a masterpiece of diplomacy. The ongoing surveillance may have resulted in deep concern among European residents, but not among their political leaders apparently. The declaration makes no reference to European leaders (or anyone else for that matter) being spied on. The closest it comes to a criticism of US surveillance is the following: “The main purpose of intelligence efforts is tackling terrorism and ensuring security … a lack of trust could prejudice the necessary co-operation in the field.” Maybe they are saying that there is a lack of trust now. Maybe not. The statement indicates little in the way of solidarity at any rate. 

Another objection is that Denmark, in exchange for its loyalty, gets important intelligence. One would hope so. We most certainly get essential information when we’re participating in US-led operations. But should we really abandon any notion of foreign policy independence – let alone European solidarity?

Anders Fogh Rasmussen (V), one of Thorning-Schmidt’s predecessors in the Prime Minister’s Office, has his own line of reasoning. It went: we needed to go out of our way to help the Americans because we had a historic debt to pay in the form of our collaboration with the Nazis and our reservations about collaborating with NATO during the Cold War. 

It is debatable whether you come up with a foreign policy based on what has happened in your past, but at least we understand what the rationale for his policies were. It hasn’t been as clear cut when it comes to the two prime ministers who have served after Fogh Rassmusen, regardless of which side of the aisle they are on. When anything that involves controversial US actions emerges, leaders here freeze up, regardless of whether it is CIA rendition flights violating Danish airspace, a Palestine resolution in the UN that the US warned against, and the decision by the US that a UN mandate in Syria would not be enforceable given the fighting there (if a UN mandate in Syria was even necessary in the first place). We had no reason to doubt the intelligence that led to these decisions, since it came from our “closest ally”. 

The US no doubt expects a backlash to revelations about its surveillance operations, not least because they would protest loudly if they had been spied on. The NSA likewise is probably cursing Snowden and his revelations. But, now that the cats are out of the bag, they can at least use them to see how their “friends and allies” react. A mild European reaction will be an invitation to continue more or less as normal. And if Europe stands divided – as has become the norm when it comes to defence and security policy – then there will be no need to fear running into a united front anytime soon. 

If Europe wants to overcome the din of Washington’s media machine, they need to put their foot down. If they don’t do it now, then when will they? If we want to do something to change a world order in which global powers pry into the affairs of decision-makers and the public, then Snowden has given us the perfect opportunity to speak up. 

As long as the US knows what our tactics are, ongoing EU-US free-trade negotiations will not be carried out on a level playing field. Freeze the negotiations until a set of guidelines we can monitor is in place.  

The author is a senior researcher with the Danish Institute for International Studies.
This was originally published by Information newspaper.