BERLIN — How is Germany supposed to react to the U.S. spying activities that have come to light recently? The political opposition seems to think the answer is simple: Expel all U.S. intelligence agents! Allow whistle-blower Edward Snowden asylum! Immediately halt all negotiations regarding the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)! Stop all cooperation with U.S. intelligence services!
But things are not that easy for those who actually have to govern. On the one hand, the German government is under pressure to act in a way to not be seen by its own citizens as the powerless appendage of the Americans. On the other, it has to protect Germany’s very real interests.
A topic of vital interest, for example, is national security. Germany is dependent on its partnership with the U.S. intelligence services as their financial, technical and human resources far outstrip their own. This is particularly important when it comes to preventing terrorist attacks on German soil or to protect German troops, development aid workers and diplomats all over the world.
Another important interest is the safeguarding of the economy — the federal republic would benefit the most from the TTIP investment partnership that is currently being negotiated. The government speaks of this as "one of the most important projects to have emerged in recent decades," that would prompt "economic growth and more jobs on both sides of the Atlantic."
Pulling out of negotiations for Germany would be shooting itself in the foot.
But what can be done instead? Recent reports of bilateral talks are sobering: the Americans are not inclined to voluntarily take the appropriate steps in reaction to the situation. Germany, therefore, must send non-ambiguous signals to their counterparts in Washington, but without damaging its interests or appearing childish.
A contact man
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesperson announced after confirming the facts of the latest case — in which German police arrested a 31-year-old employee of the German foreign intelligence agency accused of selling secrets to the CIA — that the highest ranking U.S. intelligence services representative would be expelled from the country. It comes not only as a direct response to the espionage discovered recently, but also the earlier revelations of NSA spying campaign against Germany, and Merkel herself.
The U.S. representative is said to have lived in Berlin for the last two years. He was in regular contact with the heads of the German intelligence service, functioning as an "intelligence service diplomat," and was the contact person between NSA, CIA, etc, and their German counterparts.
Germany does not want to upset its relationship, which spans decades, with the U.S. — even in light of recent events. Merkel’s spokesperson added that "it is essential to work closely with our Western partners, especially with the U.S., but trust and honesty are pivotal."
As such, the government appears to have decided on more aggressive rhetoric towards the U.S., including a rather blunt prognosis from Norbert Roettgen, head of the committee for foreign affairs, that "politics on the other side of the Atlantic are not going to change."
Display of stupidity
Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble demonstrated how a new kind of outspokenness may sound. In a recent interview he first of all lauded the German-American alliance, saying that "without the information gained through this intelligence service partnership we would not have stood a chance of preventing terrorist attacks on Germany." But this did not mean that "the U.S. is allowed to hire third-rate spies from among our civil servants. That is idiotic and this display of stupidity reduces me to tears." Quite a choice of words indeed.
Even the chancellor is, according to Schäuble, "not amused" and gave a statement — not as drastic as Schäuble’s but just as clear. She said that in light of the challenges that Syria and Iraq, for example, represent, the U.S. is ‘wasting energy’ by spying on allies.
"We have an array of problems to face and should concentrate on the essentials," she said, noting the need to move past Cold War approaches to espionage. "We live in the 21st century and it is essential for us in these times to cultivate trust between allies — more trust equals more security." In other words, intelligence services should not do something just because it is possible, but set priorities instead.
A gesture of goodwill?
Interior Minister Thomas De Maizière was another voice to be heard, stating the decision to take a harder line "was correct, a sober approach. It has to stop at some point." He added "we have to be careful not to become the laughing stock in other countries, which are gloating at the rift in German-American relations."
He continued that measures are being taken to strengthen the protection against attacks on the country's communication networks, as well as widening Germany's own counterespionage efforts. Translation: The federal government will not only spy on countries such as China and Russia but also keep tabs on Western allies. How this is supposed to fit in with Merkel’s critique of archaic espionage methods utilized by the U.S. remains unclear. Maybe the threat of action is more important than action itself.
But what if threats and the expulsion of American secret agents do not change anything? Roettgen says "then we will have to acknowledge that." The opposition may not be happy with that. Many will voice, once more, the idea of granting asylum to Snowden.
The head of the committee for oversight of the intelligence services, André Hahn, demands the U.S. make a commitment to an anti-espionage pact. He said "there have to be binding agreements between us, a no spy agreement would be a gesture of goodwill."