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26th Jan 2020

US-France snooping row to spill into EU summit

  • Fabius in Luxembourg on Monday said France must work with the US on counter-terrorism (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

France says EU leaders should talk about data privacy at this week's summit in light of the latest US spying revelation.

Speaking after an EU foreign ministers' meeting in Luxembourg on Monday (21 October), France's Laurent Fabius said the summit, on Thursday in Brussels, will discuss EU-US co-operation on the digital industry and progress on new European data privacy laws.

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"It's an industry which is very important, but it is not possible to develop it [with the US] if there is no protection of private data, and so the President of the French Republic will ask the European Union to very quickly adopt a law on the protection of personal data," he said.

He described US snooping on French citizens' private phone calls as "unacceptable."

He urged Washington to stop doing it "if it is still going on."

He also said that two rounds of EU-US talks on data privacy, held as part of broader negotiations on an EU-US free trade agreement, were: "insufficient, they did not give any results."

Later the same day, French President Francois Hollande spoke with US leader Barack Obama by phone.

Hollande's communique said he also voiced "deep disapproval."

But on a softer note, it added that French and US intelligence services will continue "legitimate ... co-operation" on counter-terrorism.

Obama said "some" of the press reports about his French snooping operation had "distorted our activities."

But he also said they "posed legitimate questions for our friends and allies about how these [US intelligence] capabilities are employed."

French daily Le Monde last weekend said Obama's National Security Agency (NSA) in one month alone intercepted 70.3 million private phone calls by French citizens.

It cited files leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden as evidence.

But despite Fabius and Hollande's immediate endorsement of the claims, US officials declined to admit guilt.

A state department spokeswoman, Marie Harf, batted away several questions about Le Monde at Monday's press briefing in the US capital.

"I’m just not going to speak to any of the details of these reports at all in any way," she said.

She noted that France and other EU countries "quite frankly recognise the importance of [US] intelligence gathering."

Amid French fears the phone-tapping served US industrial espionage, Harf took the moral high ground by mentioning US efforts to stop chemical attacks in Syria.

"We’ve talked recently about intelligence assessments, for example, of Syria’s chemical weapons program, right? That’s an example of an intelligence effort, an assessment, based on intelligence that’s been gathered and shared with our allies and partners around the world," she said.

The Le Monde story is the latest in a series of Snowden bombshells.

Previous British and German press reports say the UK also spies on its EU allies, that the US bugs EU buildings in Brussels and Washington and that it hoovered up vast amounts of private German emails.

None of the other EU foreign ministers spoke out on France's side in Luxembourg on Monday.

Will they, won't they?

Instead, the top question was whether to sign a political association and free trade treaty with Ukraine next month.

European Parliament negotiators are working on a deal for Ukraine to pardon jailed ex-PM Yulia Tymoshenko and to let her go to a German hospital so the EU can sign in good faith.

Sweden's Carl Bildt said "it would not be a solution" if Ukraine sent her to Germany but jailed her again the minute she came home.

Poland's Radek Sikorski indicated the EU will decide if Ukraine has done enough closer to the deadline, when EU leaders meet Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in Vilnius on 28 November.

EU ministers also pledged to help get Syrian rebels and regime leaders to meet for peace talks in Geneva.

They did not call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, as in several previous communiques, but Ashton said the Union's position on al-Assad "remains as it was."

She voiced concern that malnutrition and disease are spreading in Syrian refugee camps.

"We're hearing stories of some people who are very hungry … We are also conscious that winter is coming," she said.

US spy agency targets French firms

Documents seen by French daily Le Monde say the US intelligence agency NSA obtained over 70 million telephone records of French citizens within a 30-day period.

Unreported NSA spy systems revealed

A speaker at an EU parliament hearing on the US surveillance programme has revealed two previously unreported espionage operations.

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