28 October 2013
Richard Whitman

Professor Richard G Whitman

Associate Fellow, Europe Programme

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U.S. Ambassador to Germany John B. Emerson arrives at the Foreign Ministry after being summoned by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on 24 October 2013 in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.
U.S. Ambassador to Germany John B. Emerson arrives at the Foreign Ministry after being summoned by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on 24 October 2013 in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.


Allegations of US government eavesdropping operations on German Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone have led to an unwanted row between transatlantic partners which is not in the interests of the US, Germany or the EU's other member states. 

Freshly re-elected as German Chancellor, Merkel is focused on negotiating a coalition to allow her to get on with the business of governing. In the US, President Obama's political energy is focused around his own domestic political challenges, which has recently included budget agreement and raising the debt ceiling. Neither of these long-standing allied countries, or their leading politicians, have anything to gain from a prolonged political spat. However, for the US to be caught intercepting the communications of the head of government of a key international partner has provided scope for schadenfreude from opponents of a strong transatlantic relationship in Germany and beyond.

The sense of scandal in Germany has been intensified by further allegations over the weekend in Der Spiegel magazine that Merkel's mobile phone communications have been intercepted since 2002; that President Obama was allegedly aware of the telephone interceptions; and that the communications were monitored by a unit called the Special Collection Services based in the US embassy in Pariser Platz in Berlin. The latter introduces the prospect of a criminal investigation conducted against US officials by German law enforcement authorities. 

Spying is the international relations equivalent of consuming sausages – governments enjoy the end-product but are squeamish about the process of production. And they would rather it took place away from the public eye. With ex-CIA contractor Edward Snowden leaking extensive details of the information gathering practices of the US against its allies, plausible deniability that NATO allies spy upon one another is no longer tenable. To-date, these spying allegations have not derailed transatlantic relations but their accumulative effect over the last six months is to side-track both sides of the Atlantic from the need to assess the future direction of their relationship.  With the collective engagement in Afghanistan drawing to a close (following on from that in Iraq) a decade of active political and military common purpose needs a new focus. 

A particularly unfortunate coincidence was that the latest set of allegations of spying came during an EU summit and so facilitated a collective venting of outrage by leaders of the EU's member states. All of this is happening when the EU and the US are seeking to negotiate an ambitious trade agreement. The Transatlantic Free Trade Area (TAFTA) or Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is a proposal for a free trade area between the EU and the US. The TTIP negotiations are underway, although a second round was postponed by the US federal government shutdown. Agreement would create the largest free trade area in modern history, covering almost half of the world's GDP. In addition to cutting tariffs across all trade sectors, the EU and the US want to tackle non-tariff barriers to trade in technical regulations, standards and approval procedures. 

The importance of striking such an agreement between the EU and its member states and the US goes beyond the prospective economic benefits. It would be an important restatement of the centrality of transatlantic relations to both sides and a signal to third parties that both the EU and the US are actively engaged in preserving their roles as central players in the global political economy. The agreement also has especial importance for Europeans, some of whom have a deep-seated unease about the US strategic pivot to Asia and the implied diminished geopolitical importance of Europe to the US. Both sides will not want to see the negotiations complicated and will seek to insulate the TTIP from any spill-over from the spying row.

Germany has been a staunch advocate of the TTIP within the EU. Consequently the US response to the German government's – and the public's – anger over the Merkel spying row may well determine whether TTIP negotiations suffer a disconnection.