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How will NSA spying hit US-German relations?

Tom Bristow · 29 Oct 2013, 12:28

Published: 29 Oct 2013 12:45 GMT+01:00
Updated: 29 Oct 2013 12:28 GMT+01:00

On Sunday Germany’s outgoing foreign minister Guido Westerwelle warned of a break in relations between the US and its key European ally. Articles in the German press, meanwhile, have questioned whether the two countries really are friends.

Politicians and the press have echoed  the German public's reaction of outrage and shock.

On Thursday Westerwelle took the unusual step of summoning the US ambassador in Berlin. He later warned that spying on friends and partners “threatens to undermine the bonds which hold us together and which we need more than ever in the future in the globalized world of the 21st Century.”

But despite Westerwelle’s warnings, it is the second half of his statement which reveals why there will be no long-term damage to US-German relations. Neither side can afford it.

Yes, the spying scandal will erode trust of America and President Barack Obama in Germany, but from the Middle East to Europe, China and Russia the two countries' interests will continue to be broadly aligned.

Merkel’s comments last week showed this. The strongest statement she could muster after hearing her phone was probably being eavesdropped on by the Americans was that spying among allies was “really not on”.

Speaking about her telephone conversation with Obama where they discussed the phone tapping, she said: "The American president is always well prepared and we are united by a now long-standing relationship, which includes occasional differences of opinion."

Domestically and within the European Union there will be inquiries into what happened and potentially new data protection laws and spying agreements.

Dr. Christian Tuschhoff from the Free University in Berlin said relations might be affected in the medium term due to a loss of trust.

But he told The Local: “Whether there will be long-term damage will depend significantly on if measures are introduced to restore that trust. Even if they aren’t, it doesn’t mean there will necessarily be long-term damage.”

Obama’s natural popularity in Germany also means that he has a bigger well of goodwill to draw on than his predecessor would have had.

Professor Michael Wohlgemuth from think-tank Open Europe Berlin said: “If Bush was still US President, we would see massive demonstrations all over Germany against the American "hegemon" that does not play fair.

“Obama's popularity in Germany has suffered over the last years, but I expect that it will remain strong enough to keep the hidden anti-Americanism in Germany at bay.”

The most harmful fall-out so far of the NSA tapping Merkel's phone is a call by some European politicians to halt trans-Atlantic free trade negotiations. The president of the European Parliament Martin Schulz has said they should be suspended. In May of this year he said they would bring “huge benefits to both sides.”

It still will and Merkel knows this which is why she is pushing on with negotiations. "Maybe the talks are more important right now considering the current situation," she remarked on Friday during a meeting with EU leaders in Brussels.

“Halting free trade negotiations would only help the protectionists on both sides of the Atlantic.  And it would hurt the economic interests that European and American consumers and investors share,” Professor Wohlgemuth said.

“I hope that this diplomatic super-accident does not impair the good and traditionally very friendly relations between Germany and the US.”

Story continues below…

Perhaps the most damaging aspect will not be to routine diplomacy but to how America is viewed internationally.

Wohlgemuth added: “It is quite amazing to see how America, "the land of the free", has become ready to sacrifice liberty in the name of security.” 

But the tone from the White House on Monday suggests that they realize this and may address it. Spokesman Jay Carney said: “We recognize that there needs to be additional constraints on how we gather and use intelligence."

The US and its European allies are made strong through rule of law, accountability in government and by protecting individual rights against state interference.

Without these principles they lose standing internationally. It is in both Obama’s and Merkel’s interest to stick to these values together. 

READ MORE: Germans want to interrogate Snowden

Tom Bristow (tom.bristow@thelocal.com)

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