The initial revelations, which largely focused on the broad programmes of bulk data collection being carried out by the US National Security Agency (NSA), drew a critical but muted response from European leaders. Their tone changed in October, however, when it emerged that American intelligence services had been tapping and monitoring the phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, along with 35 other, as yet undisclosed, world leaders. Subsequent reports that the NSA had allegedly engaged in the bulk collection of telephone metadata from European citizens only served to heighten tensions. Suddenly, Europe was at the centre of the scandal, betrayed by its closest ally.
Though important in their own right, the political, diplomatic and economic context in which these revelations have emerged inflates their significance considerably. Historically, the transatlantic alliance has been based on collective defence and military action, but times are changing. The military operation in Afghanistan is winding down and governments and citizens in the US and Europe are increasingly focused on domestic matters. Global power seems to be shifting towards emerging economies, such as China and Brazil. In short, the greatest threat facing both partners is no longer military, but economic.
To address this new reality, the EU and the US are currently negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP. Not only would this agreement help to revitalise struggling Western economies, it would also contribute to re-establishing the transatlantic alliance as the leading force in international economic and political affairs, through establishing the global standard for international trade and investment practices.
The Snowden revelations represent an added, and potentially disastrous, complication in what are already difficult and complex negotiations. Many Europeans believe that US surveillance practices constitute a severe breach of trust and, in the words of Dutch MEP Sophie in 't Veld, "we canâ€™t sign an agreement with a partner that we donâ€™t fully trust". If the US is unable to regain the confidence of its European allies, TTIP will be in jeopardy.
Avoiding this outcome depends on two things: making sure that the data protection issues raised by the Snowden revelations remain separate from the TTIP negotiations; and addressing the issues raised by the revelations well in advance of concluding the trade agreement. The European Commission has already addressed the first point, by categorically ruling out the inclusion of data protection issues in the TTIP negotiations. The second point, however, is more problematic.
The key issue here is data protection. For Europeans, data privacy and protection is a fundamental human right and the NSA revelations suggest that the US cannot be trusted to respect this right. Suspending and renegotiating certain EU-US data-sharing agreements, as some MEPs advocate, might be one way of addressing the issue. The problem with this response, however, is that it would harm European interests at least as much as American interests, and risks being perceived by the US as retaliatory rather than constructive.
What is needed instead is cooperation and dialogue. No matter how angry and betrayed European leaders feel, it is crucial to view this as an opportunity to strengthen the alliance, rather than increase divisions. The first and most important step, therefore, must be to conclude the EU-US â€˜umbrella agreementâ€™ on data protection by a mid-2014 deadline. This would resolve any data protection concerns linked to TTIP and go a long way towards re-establishing the transatlantic trust necessary to TTIP's success. Other data-sharing agreements should be dealt with individually and separately from TTIP, in line with the recommendations set out by the European Commission in November.
As Anthony Luzzatto Gardner, President Obamaâ€™s nomination as US Ambassador to the EU, said in testimony to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, the transatlantic partners must now â€˜focus on the futureâ€™. The US and Europe cannot afford to let the Snowden revelations affect the success of TTIP. The issues raised by the surveillance scandal must be addressed, but in a way that strengthens the transatlantic alliance, rather than compromises its interests.
Courtenay is the International Issues Editor for Internal Voices and a trainee at the European Parliament, where she works on Transatlantic Relations.