NSA Scandal: European Parliamentarians Visit (11/6)     Print

By Brian Beary, Washington Correspondent for Europolitics

Some two dozen members of the European Parliament (MEP)s were in Washington last week with one topic dominating their agenda: the ongoing revelations of mass U.S. government electronic surveillance of Europeans. With the National Security Agency (NSA) spy scandal continuing to grab headlines, the euro-parliamentarians had little difficulty attracting media attention. Moreover, the sharp embarrassment being felt by the US government had a further positive effect for them. While scheduling face-to-face meetings with top level U.S. officials can be a challenge, on this occasion, the parliamentarians secured numerous top level encounters. Most notably, German MEP Elmar Brok and British MEP Claude Moraes, two key figures in Parliament’s ongoing inquiry on mass government surveillance, met with General Keith Alexander, the Director of the NSA. They also had face time with Diane Feinstein, Chair of the Senate intelligence committee, who has been briefed extensively on the NSA’s activities, and with Lisa Monaco, President Obama’s top counter-terrorism policy advisor. Attendance at think tank seminars like the meeting at The European Institute, with MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht and FTC Commissioner Julie Brill, were oversubscribed.

According to one EP source, the overall feeling at the end of the visit was that it had been worthwhile and that they had achieved their primary goal: to get Washington to take seriously European concerns about violations of their citizens’ privacy rights. Details on specific agreements were not hammered out or even broached in substantive detail, but the MEPs did not expect that on this trip.

But looking at the mid-term picture, what concrete changes can the EU realistically expect from its closest ally? Judging by how the U.S. has reacted so far, it is doubtful changes will come very close to meeting initial European demands. For instance, the Obama administration continues to argue that the NSA needs to conduct bulk collection of citizens’ phone-call records and emails, something most Europeans find totally unacceptable. While there are moves in Congress to impose more constraints on the NSA’s spying powers, these efforts focus almost exclusively on NSA spying on Americans, with little regard paid to how it spies on Europeans.

The EU has some powerful cards that it can play, which might make Washington more amenable to its demands. In the commercial space, EU suspension of the thirteen year old  Safe Harbor Agreement, which allows over 4,300 American companies to collect and process sales, emails and photos from EU customers provided companies comply with EU disclosure and storage regulations, would cause a major disruption in the free flow of data between Europe and America. In the public sector, Brussels could cause a big headache for the U.S. government by suspending the 2010 swift agreement, which gives the Treasury access to the world database of inter-bank transfers to detect terrorist financing. And if that does not make the U.S. sit up and take note, suspending the talks on an EU-U.S. free trade agreement, as some European politicians have called for, might do so. Each of these actions, however, could inflict just as much pain on Europe, which will cause EU decision-makers to move carefully.