Thursday

25th Feb 2021

EU-US relations at risk after new bugging scandal

  • EU leaders meet Obama in Washington in 2011 (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

EU politicians have questioned the future of trade talks and demanded explanations from Washington after Der Spiegel revelations that EU offices in Brussels, New York and Washington are bugged by American intelligence.

The telephone lines and computer networks of EU offices in Brussels were tapped by the American National Security Agency (NSA) under its so-called Prism surveillance programme, German daily Der Spiegel reports, based on new documents leaked by fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden.

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An NSA document from September 2010 describes Europeans as specific targets, the German magazine says.

In addition, a series of bogus phone calls to the Justus Lipsius building, which hosts the EU Council, were traced back to Nato headquarters in Brussels where NSA agents are based, indicating an attack on the EU communications security, Spiegel writes.

The German leak is the latest in a series of disclosures about Prism published over the last few weeks in British daily The Guardian and in the US paper, the Washington Post.

They show that the US government searches through the telephone calls, emails, instant messages and Facebook data of people in or outside the US by infiltrating the servers of Internet giants like Apple or Microsoft.

The British intelligence service, GCHQ, is allegedly running an even bigger surveillance programme named Tempora, which taps into transatlantic fibre-optic cables used for telephone and Internet services.

"As soon as we saw these reports, the European External Action Service made contact with the US authorities in both Washington DC and Brussels to seek urgent clarification of the veracity of, and facts surrounding, these allegations," foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement.

Her New York and Washington delegations send diplomatic cables classified up to the level of "Secret."

The designation covers texts which could "seriously harm" EU interests, "raise international tensions" or "threaten life" and "public order" if they get out.

For his part, European Parliament chief Martin Schulz said EU-US relations risk serious harm.

"I am deeply worried and shocked about the allegations of US authorities spying on EU offices. If the allegations prove to be true, it would be an extremely serious matter which will have a severe impact on EU-US relations," he said in an emailed statement.

EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding on Sunday told an audience in Luxemburg that "partners do not spy on each other."

She also questioned the future of the recently-launched EU-US free trade talks.

"We cannot negotiate on a giant transatlantic market when there is even the slightest suspicion that our partners are spying the offices of the negotiators," she said.

The Greens in the European Parliament have demanded the talks be immediately suspended and resumed only after a long-delayed EU-US data protection deal has been signed.

Finnish EU affairs and trade minister Alexander Stubb is against the move, however.

"First it should be determined what has actually happened. Free trade talks largely follow their own path. Negotiations are carried out largely on the basis of openly available information," he told Finnish broadcaster Yle.

Meanwhile, the German attorney general has started its own inquiry about the legality of the US and British spy programmes.

Germany is the most spied-upon among EU countries, with some 500 million phone calls, emails and SMS-es tapped into each month by the NSA, according to the documents seen by Der Spiegel.

By comparison, France has about 2 million such communications snooped upon each month, the magazine says.

Considered by US intelligence as a "target" and a "third-class country" - a designation for a lower-ranked partner than the UK or Canada - Germany still hosts several US military bases dating from the Cold War and has had to account for the so-called Hamburg cell of Al-Qaeda operatives, which carried out 9/11.

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