EU-US trade agreement talks to be affected by American bugs

Viviane Reding, Vice-President of the EC in charge of Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship (first from right) went to Dublin to participate in the EU/US Justice Ministerial Meeting. Eric Holder, US Attorney General (first from left), and Alan Shatter, Irish Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence also took part in the event. Discussions focused on data protection, rights of victims of crime, judicial cooperation in criminal matters, and judicial cooperation in civil matters (EC Audiovisual Services, 14/06/2013).

Viviane Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission in charge of Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship (first from right) went to Dublin to participate in the EU/US Justice Ministerial Meeting. Eric Holder, US Attorney General (first from left), and Alan Shatter, Irish Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence also took part in the event. Discussions focused on data protection, rights of victims of crime, judicial cooperation in criminal matters, and judicial cooperation in civil matters (EC Audiovisual Services, 14/06/2013).

Bugging EU institutions’ premises and members states’ offices in the US by American secret agencies may seriously affect the progress of negotiations for the conclusion of a Free Trade and Investments Agreement between the two largest trading partners of the world. While the first reactions by EU dignitaries, after the revealing publications by Der Spiegel and The Guardian, didn’t contain references to the possibility of holding back negotiations for the Free Trade Agreement (FTA), yesterday’s developments do not exclude that.

The issue was discussed yesterday in the European Parliament and the Commission College. On both occasions direct or indirect reserves were voiced over the progress of negotiations for the trade agreement. The relevant Press releases issued by the Commission and the EU Parliament contain clear references to the impossibility of continuing negotiations, as if nothing happened, with a trade partner who uses such unorthodox methods. On top of that there were strong reactions by EU member state governments. In Paris the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Laurent Fabius, observed that the French government doesn’t spy on the American mission in France. Strong negative reactions were also recorded in Berlin and other EU capitals. Let’s follow the facts.

The Parliament

Staring from the European Parliament, the EU legislators discussed with top EU leaders the PRISM affair in a house plenary yesterday. Everybody agreed that clarity is urgently needed on the spy scandal. Rebecca Harms (Greens/EFA, DE) called for an immediate halt to preparations to open trade talks with the United States in the wake of press reports that the US might have spied on European institutions both inside and outside the EU. “The talks should not be opened until the magnitude of the problem is checked”, she said. Of course her statement didn’t reflect the opinion of all MEPs, but just the fact that a ‘full stop’ of the FTA negotiations was voiced in the EU Parliament plenary is not a minor thing at all.

Even more important was the intervention of Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). The Belgian ex-Prime Minister advocated the setting up of an inquiry committee and Hannes Swoboda, leader of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, said that a data protection package should be in place before trade talks start. The two leaders represent the third and the second largest groups respectively of the European Parliament. Their interventions cannot be ignored.

The Commission

The same mood also prevailed in the Commission College during the discussions on the reported US intelligence activities targeting EU institutions and member states. A Press release issued afterwards concluded like this: “The College (of Commissioners) considered that whilst the beginning of EU/US trade negotiation should not be affected, the EU side will make it clear that for such a comprehensive and ambitious negotiation to succeed, there needs to be confidence, transparency and clarity among the negotiating partners”.

There is no doubt that there will be both short and long-term repercussions on EU – US relations. The beginning of the FTA negotiations will be delayed for sure. In the long-term the European Union will ask for guarantees along the lines of the letter of the US Attorney General Holder to Commission Vice-President Reding and Commissioner Malmström regarding the launch of the EU/US high level expert group on oversight of intelligence activities.

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