The Merkel phone tap scandal paves the way toward E.U.-U.S. confrontation

October 23, 2013
(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

According to German news magazine, Spiegel, there is some evidence that the United States has tried to tap German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone. The evidence seems strong enough to have caused Merkel to make an angry phone call to Obama to complain. The administration, in response, has said that the United States “is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of Chancellor Merkel.” It has declined to comment on whether it has monitored her phone communications in the past.

It’s likely that Germany is being hypocritical in complaining about the phone tap. The transcripts of the Wikileaks diplomatic cables reveal that Merkel has been privately very sympathetic to U.S. surveillance in the past. Almost certainly, Merkel would not be making angry and well publicized phone calls if the scandal hadn’t already become public. Now that it is public, she has to. The scandal is equivalent to the scandal that would erupt in the United States, if it was discovered that France had been tapping into President Obama’s blackberry.

Yet as Martha Finnemore and my arguments about hypocrisy suggest, the interesting question isn’t whether the German government is entirely sincere. It’s whether these revelations are making it tougher for the United States to have its cake and eat it too. And there is good reason to believe that they will make direct confrontation between Europe and the United States more likely.

On Monday, the European Parliament agreed on new privacy legislation, which included a provision that forbade businesses from giving personal information to U.S. authorities without informing European authorities, and the European citizen affected. The United States had previously successfully lobbied to get this provision deleted; it was reinstated as a result of the Snowden scandal. The European Parliament doesn’t get sole final say on this legislation — it now has to negotiate with Europe’s member states. U.S. politicians and lobbyists have been hoping that they can persuade enough member states to quietly delete the provision yet again.

This has suddenly become a lot harder. Merkel would probably personally like to see the provision deleted. Yet it is going to be very hard for her to push that argument, without looking like a sellout to the German public. The French wiretapping scandal is similarly going to harden public opposition in France. Disagreements over spying are usually handled discreetly through back channels. Not this time.

Thus — even if Merkel doesn’t want it (and she has done her best in her public statement to limit the controversy by only demanding that U.S. spying stops) — this latest scandal is plausibly going to lead to a major confrontation between the European Union and the United States over NSA spying, in which the two sides make incompatible legal demands. If this happens, Google, Facebook, and other companies that operate across both jurisdictions will be caught in the crossfire. It’s possible that Europe and the United States will find some way to fudge this and avoid confrontation, but it’s hard for me to see how.

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John Sides | October 23, 2013