File photo of German Chancellor Merkel holding a smartphone featuring high security Secusite software in Hanover...German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) reacts as she holds a BlackBerry Z10 smartphone featuring high security Secusite software, used for governmental communication, at the booth of Secusmart during her opening tour with Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk on the CeBit computer fair in Hanover in this March 5, 2013 file photo. Germany's Foreign Minister has summoned the United States' ambassador to Germany, John B. Emerson, to discuss information obtained by Berlin that the U.S. may have monitored Merkel's mobile phone, a government spokesman said on October 24, 2013. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch/Files (GERMANY - Tags: BUSINESS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY POLITICS)
© Reuters

European leaders denounced US spying practices on Thursday, with Angela Merkel, German chancellor, suggesting the EU needed a new data protection agreement with Washington following allegations US intelligence agencies tapped her personal mobile phone.

In her first public remarks since her government accused the US National Security Agency of spying on her, Ms Merkel said bilateral relations had been severely damaged and called for Europe to decide on new ways to ensure “transparency” with the US.

“It’s not just about me but about every German citizen,” Ms Merkel said as she arrived in Brussels for a two-day summit. “We need to have trust in our allies and partners and this trust must now be established once again.”

A classified document provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden and reported on Thursday in the Guardian suggested the monitoring of world leaders was widespread.

The newspaper said the NSA monitored the phone conversations of 35 world leaders after being given the numbers by an official in an unnamed US government department.

The Guardian cited a confidential memo indicating that the NSA encouraged government officials to share numbers in their “Rolodexes” so the agency could monitor foreign politicians.

Leaders of Ms Merkel’s future coalition partners questioned whether the EU should go ahead with a high-stakes transatlantic trade deal without new assurances.

Sigmar Gabriel, head of the Social Democratic party and likely vice-chancellor in a new government, said the trade pact could not proceed without an agreement that protected the privacy of European citizens.

“I cannot imagine how we can conclude a free-trade agreement with America without an agreement that protects the rights and freedom of the individual,” said Mr Gabriel. “If they carry on with this [espionage] they are destroying the fundamental values on which the transatlantic alliance is based.”

Martin Schulz, another SPD leader and president of the European parliament, called for the negotiations, begun only three months ago, to be suspended altogether.

A spokesperson for the office of the US trade representative insisted on Thursday that conversations on NSA surveillance were separate from trade negotiations and that it would be a “mistake to let these issues – however important – distract us” from forging a trade deal. A pact with the EU should “strengthen and facilitate” what is already the most robust cross-border data network in the world, the official said.

“We are confident that we will be able to find ways to respect privacy protections on both sides of the Atlantic as we seek to strengthen this increasingly important dimension of our trade,” the USTR spokesperson said.

European leaders from across the political spectrum on Thursday joined the condemnation at the latest allegations, with several also suggesting Europe adopt new measures to counter US spying efforts. Enrico Letta, the Italian prime minister, responding to new reports that the Italian government had been spied on by the US and UK intelligence agencies, called the allegations “inconceivable”.

“Facts are facts. We cannot accept this systematic spying, whatever it may be,” said Belgium’s Socialist prime minister, Elio Di Rupo. “We need to take measures and I can’t imagine measures at the national level. We need to take European measures.”

Ms Merkel met with François Hollande, the French president, on the summit’s sidelines to discuss the NSA’s practices and the two were seen in a heated exchange as they entered the summit room. French officials have also requested US clarifications after Le Monde reported this week the NSA had vacuumed up tens of millions of French phone calls over the course of a month.

Guido Westerwelle, German foreign minister, on Thursday summoned the US ambassador to explain Washington’s actions, and at a news conference after the meeting said US actions were “unacceptable”.

“For us, spying on close friends and partners is totally unacceptable,” Mr Westerwelle said. “This undermines trust and can harm our friendship.”

Repeating his words in English, “to make this quite clear”, he demanded a comprehensive investigation by the US. “We need the truth now.”

The focus in Brussels quickly turned to long-stalled data protection legislation currently moving through the European parliament. Earlier this week, parliamentarians reinserted language that would require US companies such as Google and Facebook to get approval from European regulators before releasing data on EU citizens to American spy agencies.

The US has fiercely lobbied against such a measure but momentum has built behind the language in recent weeks.

Additional reporting by James Fontanella-Khan in Brussels and James Politi in Washington

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article