US President Barack Obama sought to allay concerns from German Chancellor Angela Merkel about reported US spying on European allies on Wednesday, and they agreed to hold a high-level meeting on the subject in coming days.
The EU has demanded the US explain a report in a German magazine that Washington was spying on its European allies, calling such surveillance shocking if true.
The reports came to light amid the imbroglio over former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked details of surveillance activities by Washington.
He is currently in limbo in a transit area of Moscow’s airport as the US pressures Russia to expel him home.
A White House statement said Obama and Merkel spoke by phone, a conversation that took place two weeks after they held face-to-face talks in Berlin.
“The president assured the chancellor that the United States takes seriously the concerns of our European allies and partners,” the White House said, adding that US and EU officials would discuss intelligence and privacy issues as early as Monday.
The leaders agreed to hold a meeting of US and German security officials in the coming days to discuss the issue in greater detail.
German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said that Germany would send the sub-heads of German ministries to Washington — those below the level of deputy minister — and said they would assess the communication streams coming into Germany in a bid to protect German citizens.
However, Thomas Oppermann, parliamentary floor leader of Germany’s opposition Social Democrats, criticized Merkel’s choice of delegation.
“The Chancellor needs to hold proper government consultations,” he told German television yesterday.
“In the next week a government delegation of sub-heads of ministries will go to Washington so basically technocrats will be talking about this topic. It’s a highly political issue,” he said.
The White House said Obama and Merkel reiterated their strong support for the launch of Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations, welcoming the soon-to-begin first round of discussions.
On Monday at a news conference in Tanzania, Obama promised to supply all the information requested by European allies regarding the spying allegations, which he said Washington was still evaluating.
“Every intelligence service, not just ours, but every European intelligence service, every Asian intelligence service, wherever there’s an intelligence service, here’s one thing they’re going to be doing: they’re going to be trying to understand the world better and what’s going on in world capitals around the world from sources that aren’t available through the New York Times or NBC News,” Obama said.
The European Commission said it would go ahead with EU-US trade talks on Monday, but that discussions would begin in parallel on allegations of US spying, after Paris had called for a two-week delay.
France — which already held up the start of the talks to protect its entertainment industry — had said earlier on Wednesday that a “climate of mistrust” after the reports that Washington is spying on EU institutions meant it was not a good time for negotiations to start.
“The French position is that we cannot start trade negotiations if we don’t have at the same time and date a discussion ... with the US to investigate the activities of the US intelligence services,” French President Francois Hollande told a news conference in Berlin after an EU summit on youth unemployment.
As a compromise, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Europe would begin the talks as planned, but that it would at the same time set up EU-US working groups to examine the scope of US intelligence tactics.
“Negotiations on [the partnership] are and will remain a top priority,” Barroso told the news conference. “In parallel it is important to address concerns that have been clearly expressed on the European side on some intelligence activities and also on the implication for privacy and data protection.”
Even though France could not unilaterally block the talks after EU states gave the Commission a negotiating mandate last month, the row was yet another setback for a trade deal that could boost the EU and US economies by more than US$100 billion each a year.
Paris last month threatened to block talks unless its movies and online entertainment were ring-fenced.
Hollande said last week that if true, the spying allegations may hinder US-EU relations.