The latest chapter of American whistleblower Edward Snowden’s real life spy thriller, recently published by Germany’s “Der Spiegel” magazine, should be shocking in a symbolic way. The United Nations, a place designed to facilitate open dialogue and cooperation between nations, is being systematically spied upon by the country hosting its headquarters. The European Union’s delegation to the UN appears to be in particular focus, as is its delegation in Washington. Yet despite the seriousness of the allegations, European governments seem to have barely taken notice.
The generally weak response to the string of information leaked by Snowden so far can’t be described as outrage that America is spying on its friends. Indeed, the actions taken by European governments since the beginning of the Snowden affair can be interpreted as anything from disinterest to implicit approval, but certainly not anger. Angela Merkel symbolically sent her Interior Minister to Washington after the Prism story first broke, who then essentially defended the program. European governments were quick to reject Snowden’s asylum requests, and some countries even denied Bolivia’s president entry into their airspace during his flight home after a visit to Moscow, due to suspicions that Snowden was aboard his airplane.
Revelations about Britain’s massive spying scheme and France’s smaller but less supervised surveillance program render any of their possible criticism against the US hollow. Subsequent actions warrant heavy criticism of their own, such as the British government-ordered destruction of hard disks belonging to The Guardian newspaper. Meanwhile, negotiations for a transatlantic free trade area between the US and EU continue.
European governments’ attitudes and actions certainly can’t be explained by principle. However, they make perfect sense in the broader context of transatlantic relations and internal security policy since September 11, 2001. European governments have been reluctant to criticize the US harshly ever since the beginning of the Cold War, always wary about alienating their powerful protector. Even despite serious disagreement over the Iraq War, European governments agreed that the post 9/11 environment necessitated stronger anti-terrorism measures and intelligence cooperation with the US, as evidenced by agreements on sharing airline passenger and bank transaction information.
Why European governments aren’t standing up for transparency is clear. Why they don’t stand up for the EU itself reveals a less obvious reality: close ties to the US are still more important than the external credibility of the European project. After all, the US isn’t really Europe’s friend; it’s more like a big brother.
By Marco Funk