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9th May 2021

Merkel in tough spot over US spy scandal

  • Merkel wants Obama to respect German law on German soil (Photo: Bundesregierung/Kugler)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday (19 July) defended her stance on the US spying affair, saying Washington needs more time to give all the answers and that she cannot force the US to change its laws.

At the traditional "summer press conference" ahead of breaking off to holidays in Italy, Merkel was grilled for over an hour about her response to revelations made by fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden.

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The former US intelligence contractor last month exposed a secret surveillance programme (Prism) ran by the National Security Agency which taps into the servers of Google, Apple or Facebook, enabling them to snoop emails, chats or voice conversations in their search for alleged terrorism suspects.

Germany turned out to be the country where most data is collected from among EU nations, according to Snowden, who also pointed the finger at the German intelligence services for knowing and assisting the NSA in this project.

Faced with increased criticism from the opposition that risks to dent her popularity ahead of her re-election bid on 22 September, Merkel said "German law needs to be respected on German soil."

"Here in Germany and in Europe it's not about the law of the strongest, but about the strength of law," she said.

However, a declaration from the US side that they abide by German law and are not engaged in mass surveillance of German citizens, as she asked for when President Obama visited her in Berlin last month, has not been formulated yet.

"They asked for more time to look at all the questions we sent them. In this case, I think it's better to wait than to get a declaration which turns out to be void," she said.

Even if she understands that the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 put the US in a "deep shock" and that at that time Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder promised "unlimited solidarity", Merkel is still "concerned" about the proportionality of all anti-terrorism programmes in the US.

"The end doesn't justify the means. Just because you have a certain technology doesn't mean you need to use it," she said.

But she also pointed to the limitations of her mandate. As a German chancellor, she can only demand from the US to stick to German law while on German soil.

"But I cannot tell them to adapt their laws to the German ones. We are finding it difficult even in the EU to agree on data protection standards," she pointed out.

Germany and France are now jointly pushing for a revamp of the EU data protection law to also cover intelligence services, Merkel said. "It will be a difficult task," she said, pointing to the UK, where decades of conflict and terrorism in northern Ireland have made the country more tolerant to surveillance than Germany.

The two countries are also pushing for internet companies like Facebook and Google to be obliged to give notice when they hand over private data to other governments or organisations.

Merkel downplayed the effect the scandal may have on her reelection bid and the chances to remake the same coalition with the Liberal Party.

"We are 66 days ahead of elections, data privacy will play a role, but several other topics are likely to come up too. We have a convincing concept and I am confident this can be explained well to our citizens," she said.

The opposition has criticised her for failing to defend the interests of German citizens.

"What does the government know? Is the programme still ongoing? What is Merkel doing to defend German interests? We need answers to all these questions now," Social-Democrat leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier told Bild.

The Greens reacted by saying she was not convincing at all.

"Merkel's performance at the press conference was not only an insult to all listeners who expected explanations, but also an intellectual insult to all those who work in the chancellery, pretending not to have known about anything," Green deputy leader Volker Beck told Spiegel.

A poll ran by ARD shows that over two thirds of those questioned are not happy with how the German government is handling the NSA affair. But so far this has failed to swing the voters' mood for the 22 September elections: 33 percent say this will impact their choice only marginally and 37 percent said this will play no role at all.

Merkel's coalition has so far managed to keep its lead over a leftist-green coalition, according to latest polls. Her Christian-Democrats are comfortably at 41 percent, while the Liberals clock in at five percent among voters. The Social-Democrats are at 23 percent and the Greens at 14 percent.

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