Can Europe Make It?

Why European air space was closed to the Bolivian President

While European leaders have expressed outrage about the US eavesdropping on the communications of its citizens, for them to symbolically challenge the US is one thing; to challenge it substantively is another thing altogether.

Ravi Arvind Palat
15 July 2013
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Bolivian Ponchos Rojos demonstrated by burning the French flag to protest the diversion of Evo Morales's plane. Demotix/Carlos Sánchez. All rights reserved.

Rarely in modern history have a statesman’s words been as at odds with his actions as those of French President Francois Hollande in dealing with US spying on its allies. When Edward Snowden, the former US National Security Agency (NSA) infrastructure analyst, revealed that the NSA had bugged the European Union’s offices and embassies of several EU member states, tapped into communications cables, and bugged the 2009 meeting of the G20 leaders in the UK, the French president thundered that this was “unacceptable behaviour” among friends and allies.

Yet actions speak louder than words, and, while European leaders have expressed outrage about the US eavesdropping on the communications of its citizens and bugging of their embassies, they did not want the man who revealed the extent of US espionage to seek asylum in their countries. If Mr Snowden were on the Bolivian president’s plane and if he were to ask for asylum during a refuelling stop, it would have placed the government in an impossible situation. Since EU-wide laws prohibit the extradition of persons to countries with capital punishment, it would be politically suicidal for any government to deliver him to Washington. Yet, while European leaders were vociferous in denouncing US espionage, none were willing to defy the US on the issue.

Hence, France, Portugal, and Spain took the unprecedented step of revoking pre-arranged flight permissions for President Morales’ plane—an action in which they were subsequently joined by Italy.  When the plane, running low on fuel, finally landed in Vienna’s Schwechat airport, President Morales was prevented from leaving for 13 hours while the Austrians satisfied themselves that Mr Snowden was not on the plane.

Let us be clear: Mr Snowden is not a spy. He did not steal US secrets at the behest of a foreign power. He did not publish the contents of the espionage. He merely revealed its massive reach, and its sheer illegality and violation of human rights on a planetary scale by tracking the communications of citizens the world over. He is a whistleblower. The UN defines whistleblowers “as individuals releasing confidential or secret information although they are under an official or other obligation to maintain confidentiality of secrecy.”

The special UN rapporteur for the freedom of expression in 2004, along with his counterparts in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Organization of American states, the Guardian newspaper reports, enjoined all governments to protect whistleblowers from all “legal, administrative or employment-related sanctions if they act in ‘good faith’”. By revealing the magnitude of US espionage against their citizens and governments, Mr Snowden clearly acted in public interest.

Indeed, before Mr Snowden’s revelations, the Director of US National Intelligence, Mr James Clapper had testified to the US Senate Intelligence Committee that in March that the NSA did not collect data indiscriminately on millions of Americans—a testimony he was compelled to retract on the scarcely credible ground that he had “simply did not think” of the relevant provision in the Patriot Act that permitted the collection of such data. Likewise, President Barack Obama had claimed several times that the NSA was not eavesdropping on phone calls domestically without warrants—a claim proven wrong by Mr Snowden’s revelations.

Jean Asselborn, the foreign minister of Luxembourg, observed that “Americans justify everything by terrorism. The EU and its diplomats are not terrorists.”

Let us also recall that these very same European governments—especially Spain and Portugal—allowed the use of their “airspace and airports for flights associated with CIA secret detention and extraordinary rendition [torture] operations” as the Open Society’s Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition investigation uncovered in a report published earlier this year. An ongoing investigation in France is examining whether the government permitted similar CIA flights. Victims can be carried over their airspace to be tortured but whistleblowers who reveal breaches of their citizens’ privacy and of their own sovereignty cannot! And this from member states of the EU that won the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize for the “advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”!

Speaking out against US actions while surreptitiously aiding Washington is, of course, not a novel practice for its European allies. Ten years ago, the then French president Jacques Chirac loudly proclaimed that an assault against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was unacceptable to Paris, but, when the US assault started, Chirac opened French airspace to US military flights—something he had not done as premier for Reagan’s attack on Libya in 1986. Though Germany also opposed the Iraq war, once it had begun, its foreign minister prayed for the ‘rapid collapse’ of the resistance. Even Russian president Vladimir Putin hoped for a decisive victory for the US ‘for economic and political reasons.’

The current generation of European leaders have not known a time in their lives when the United States did not dominate their countries—in the economic, political, and perhaps even cultural arenas. For them to symbolically challenge the US is one thing; to challenge it substantively is another thing altogether. Hence, even when their sovereignty was violated with the bugging of their diplomatic missions and EU offices, and when the privacy of their citizens was infringed by the tapping of their phones and digital communications, all they did was ensure that Mr Snowden could not seek asylum in their countries, even if that meant endangering the lives of President Morales and his entourage. Would they have done that if President Morales was one of them?

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