Berlin, 21.01.2014

Europe Must Balance the Digital Hegemon

Annegret Bendiek
Annegret Bendiek

President Barack Obama's speech last week may have been meant to dispel concerns at home and abroad about U.S. surveillance activities, writes Annegret Bendiek. But Europe, and Germany in particular, are unlikely to be satisfied by the measures announced to reform the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA).

German concerns about U.S. spying on officials of the German foreign ministry and members of the legislature have not been addressed. There is neither a "no spy" agreement nor any written guarantee that the cell phones of the foreign minister or deputies of the Bundestag will remain uncompromised in the future. Germany will just have to live with the fact that the United States - as the world’s digital hegemon - claims the right to spook on it whenever and wherever it is deemed to be in their national security interest. And it is quite likely that Britain and the other members of the "Five Eyes" (Canada, Australia and New Zealand) will assist the United States in such efforts. Nor will planned NSA reforms do nothing to deepen transatlantic cooperation when it comes to finding the right balance between security needs and privacy concerns. It is very much reminiscent of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides’ insight that the strong do what they want and the weak suffer what they must.

The situation is not hopelessly doomed, however. Germany should reassess its options for making its position regarding privacy rights understood more clearly. It must use its European influence to explain plainly to the United States and Britain that an almost complete disregard for its concerns is unacceptable. Germany is powerful enough to do so. It has, in the words of British historian Timothy Garton Ash, become Europe's “indispensable power.” Its financial support is of crucial importance to many European member states. No major decision in the European Union can be adopted against German interests or without its support. Germany is also of crucial importance for transatlantic relations. It is the United States' largest trading partner within the EU and a crucial voice in the on-going negotiations over a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). This powerful position is an important bargaining chip that Germany can and should use for rallying European support and making its concerns better understood in Washington.

The outcome of the recent transatlantic discussions will also have an important effect on the on-going debate about "technological sovereignty." Since U.S. government contract Edward Snowden made his revelations about the NSA's surveillance activities, there has been a growing chorus demanding that European states support their digital companies to become more competitive, and for the European economy to become less dependent on U.S. companies like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft. The European economy's heavy reliance on U.S. companies is increasingly viewed as a liability that needs to be overcome. Deutsche Telekom has even proposed a "Schengen Routing" scheme which ensures that European data only leaves the EU if European data protection laws are applied. This is, of course, a nightmare for the liberal order and in clear conflict with the idea of an open Internet. It is a threat, however, which will become more real if European concerns are not taken seriously on the other side of the Atlantic.

In order to prevent a further fragmentation of the Internet and the transatlantic market, German concerns will have to find a pan-European voice, much as has been done with respect to trade policy. Ever since the European Community was set up, the center of European trade policy has been concentrated in Brussels. Europe is an economic superpower whose voice is well heard in Washington.

The same must be done with regard to data protection. The pooling of member state competencies in Brussels will go a long way towards transforming neglected German concerns into powerful European interests. Any progress on TTIP should be tied on the European side to the conclusion of the umbrella agreement on data protection and data use. It must be admitted, however, that Germany itself will have to change course in order to make this strategy work. The German government is among the member states that have prevented the adoption of the European regulations on data protection. Its resistance must end as soon as possible. The only meaningful way ahead for Germany to address its concerns is to integrate even more with Europe, not only on intelligence cooperation but also on data protection. This is probably also in the best interests of a liberal and cooperative transatlantic order.

Annegret Bendiek ist Deputy Head of the Research Devision EU External Relations. She is a Robert Bosch Public Policy Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy in Washington D.C. for the time being.

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