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The EU won’t stand up to the USA or protect our rights against ‘the eyes’

For all their purported shock and outrage, the inconvenient truth for many European leaders is that their own intelligence services are up to their necks in unregulated surveillance and/or cooperation with the global USA-UK spying infrastructure.

A rally in Berlin in support of Edward Snowden. Demotix/Lars Dickhoff. All rights reserved.

A rally in Berlin in support of Edward Snowden. Demotix/Lars Dickhoff. All rights reserved.

As the fallout from the PRISM, TEMPORA, DROPMIRE and the other blithely acronymed surveillance programmes continues to reverberate across Europe, it is worth remembering what happened last time there was a comparable surveillance scandal: not much.  The year was 2000 and the investigative journalist Duncan Campbell had just produced a report on the ECHELON system for the European Parliament, laying bare the way in which the “five eyes” – USA, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand – intercepted global satellite traffic and other communications systems.

The European Parliament was particularly concerned that this system may have been used for industrial espionage, to the detriment of Europe’s economies. But the ‘scandal’ ultimately came and went with little more than a mild rebuke and this extraordinary rebuttal from the former head of the CIA:

[M]y continental friends, we have spied on you because you bribe. Your companies' products are often more costly, less technically advanced or both, than your American competitors'. As a result you bribe a lot… Stop blaming us and reform your own statist economic policies. Then your companies can become more efficient and innovative, and they won't need to resort to bribery to compete. And then we won't need to spy on you. 

The excuse was as implausible then as now. But after a decade of neoliberal EU reform the only response now is, “so what, you do it too”. For all their purported shock and outrage, the inconvenient truth for many European leaders was that their own intelligence services are up to their necks in unregulated surveillance and/or cooperation with the global USA-UK spying infrastructure.

The current scandal is already much more significant in political terms than ECHELON ever was, but when the dust settles will the outcome be any different? The European Justice Commissioner wants answers. France, Germany and Italy want answers. EU foreign officials want clarity. Members of the European Parliament want an inquiry. Digital rights advocates want stronger data protection standards. Many of us want what all of these things and more but – unless Germany takes a stand – we haven’t much chance of getting them.

Why? The USA is not going to provide anything like full and frank answers because – for all the impassioned pleas of Commissioner Reding et al – it knows the threat of sanctions is not one that member state governments will follow through on (just look how desperate they are to help Obama catch Snowden, and sod international law and diplomatic convention).

Many EU diplomats, whose privacy has apparently been systematically violated, already work on the express assumption that their communications are bugged (after all it’s hardly the first time) – what are we expecting, strike action?

For all its outrage, the European Parliament is now populated primarily by people whose overwhelming concern is the May 2014 elections – for most social democrat, conservative and liberal MEPs getting re-elected tomorrow means toeing the national party or government line today. Martin Schultz, President of the Parliament, is in the same boat – his widely reported anger will inevitably be tempered by his ambition to take up the corresponding post at the European Commission next year.

When push comes to shove, only the Greens, GUE group and a sprinkling of non-UK liberals and veterans can be relied upon to maintain a principled stand – and they are too few to make serious waves. Crucial as it is that they do so, even if MEPs vote today to produce another ECHELON-style report, the EU Council (member states) and the US establishment may simply ignore it – just as they did in 2000.

Right now the best hope for Europeans who want their governments to stand up to the USA and stop showing contempt for their rights is Germany, the country said to be the most spied upon by the USA (surely proof enough of industrial espionage on a grand scale). It is the only EU member state where the public anger is at palpable levels and where the Federal Prosecutors Office is reportedly considering criminal charges (to be fair Italy has a better track record than most in holding US intelligence agencies to account for their misdeeds, but its fragile coalition government surely lacks the appetite for a new fight with the US administration). The German civil liberties movement has made great strides in recent years as those in many other countries have waned; only if it can elicit a meaningful domestic response is there any hope that the rest of the EU might take a meaningful stand, never mind reach for their once cherished human rights conventions.


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