Germany's Quandary: The Debate over Asylum for Snowden
There are growing calls in Germany not only to question Edward Snowden in connection with the ongoing NSA scandal, but also to offer him safe passage and asylum. Yet the heads of the two major political camps fear the wrath of the United States. By SPIEGEL STAFF
Hans-Christian Ströbele, a lawyer and parliamentarian for Germany's Green Party, turned 74 this year. He has devoted more than 50 of those years to the political struggle for justice and for what is good in the world - or at least that's how he sees it. "Have you ever been on the wrong side of things?" Ströbele was asked in a recent television interview.
"Politically speaking?" he asked the interviewer, glancing at the ceiling. For two seconds, it seemed as if he had to consider the question, but he quickly regained his composure and emphatically replied: "No."
Now Ströbele is waging another political battle, probably the most noteworthy one of his life. Last Thursday, he went to Moscow and spent three hours speaking with Edward Snowden, the man whose revelations about the spying activities of the United States have both captivated the world for months and deeply changed its perceptions.
Ströbele, a lawmaker from the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg election district in Berlin, was the first politician in the world to meet with Snowden in his Moscow exile. Snowden's mission is now Ströbele's mission. He wants to bring the American whistleblower to Germany to testify before an investigative committee of the German parliament, the Bundestag, and in doing so provide him with a secured right of residence in Germany.
Ströbele knows that granting Snowden the right to stay in Germany would create problems for German-American relations. The Americans have already submitted an extradition request, just in case Snowden ever sets foot on German soil. But Ströbele doesn't care. He sets his own priorities and, once again, he believes himself to be on the right side of history, notwithstanding Germany's trans-Atlantic partnership with the United States. "If the political will exists, as well as the courage, including the courage to stand up to presidents, then it's possible," Ströbele said after returning from Moscow.
A Test for Berlin
Germany now faces a test of courage, one that affects the German parliament, the heads of the two major parties, the conservatives and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), who are currently hammering out the details of a grand coalition government in negotiations set to conclude by Christmas. Most of all, it affects Chancellor Angela Merkel.
So should the Bundestag hear Snowden's testimony before an investigative committee? The answer seems straightforward. Why shouldn't German lawmakers hear what he has to say, the man on whose revelations the entire NSA scandal is based and who has already told Ströbele that he is willing to come to Germany?
The second, more fundamental question is harder to answer: whether Snowden should be granted the right to live in Germany or a comparable country, and therefore protection from the Americans. This is precisely the condition Snowden has set for his willingness to testify. He knows that his asylum in Russia is limited to one year, which means that it expires in nine months. He is testing the waters to see where he could live safely in the future. Germany appears to be his top choice.
At the same time, the question arises as to whether it is advisable to snub the United States, given that Germany benefits more than most other countries from the intelligence it receives from Washington.
If a Bundestag committee wanted to hear Snowden's testimony, the German government would be obligated to provide him with safe domicile in Germany and even the opportunity for regular employment. This is the conclusion reached in a report by the Academic Office of the Bundestag commissioned by members of the Left Party's parliamentary group. According to the assessment, there is only one reason to oppose the wishes of the parliament: "Serious foreign policy concerns that endanger the welfare of the state."
In the end, is the fear of America's rage over giving Snowden a home worse than the urgent desire for answers, which the Bundestag, the body that represents the German people, has expressed? Germany could hardly reconcile this with its national identity as a modern, enlightened and sovereign constitutional state. And if Berlin's outrage over the surveillance of German citizens and their political leadership isn't feigned, it can hardly turn away the man whose actions were critical to exposing the NSA scandal in the first place.
On Monday, Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert did his best to cool down the domestic debate over offering Snowden asylum. "The chancellor believes she has an obligation to protect the data and privacy of German citizens from illegal monitoring and she is working to re-establish trust with the United States, and put in place clear rules for future cooperation," he told reporters.
"That said, however, this is also about our security and our interests as partners. The trans-Atlantic alliance remains of paramount importance. There is hardly a country that has profited as much from this partnership and friendship as Germany," Seibert added. But when asked whether Snowden might offer testimony in a German inquiry, Merkel's spokesman deflected, saying that would be up to parliament and the relevant committees.
Which Interest Is More Important?
Ultimately Merkel will have to make a decision and take a stand. Is she willing to risk conflict with US President Barack Obama and his administration to achieve a different goal: a comprehensive investigation of American espionage activity in Germany by the German Bundestag?
It is clear that Merkel's preferred method of taking a wait-and-see approach isn't going to yield any results in the Snowden case. Her government has to decide which interest is more important: The relationship with the United States or learning the truth about its spying activities to protect the rights of German citizens?
So far, the German government has demonstrated moral cowardice in its interactions with Washington. As recently as this summer, politicians in Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), still viewed Snowden as a troublemaker and traitor, and as a nuisance factor in the German-American relationship. And it isn't long ago that Ronald Pofalla, Merkel's chief of staff, declared the NSA scandal to be over, and that Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said: "This combination of anti-Americanism and naïveté really gets on my nerves!"
SPIEGEL's report that the NSA monitored the chancellor's mobile phone and Ströbele's visit to Moscow have left many in Berlin feeling embarrassed. Suddenly those who had viewed Snowden as little more than an annoyance are expressing themselves in thoughtful and even self-critical ways. And now even Friedrich himself is saying that perhaps Berlin should make it possible to question the American whistleblower. But the leaders of the CDU/CSU and the SPD are still dodging the asylum question.
Germany's Snowden Supporters
On the other side of the issue is a broad social alliance of citizens, celebrities and small opposition parties, who respect Snowden for his courage and are demanding that he be brought to Germany.
"The courage he has shown in defying a seemingly superior adversary makes him a role model," says Frank Bsirske, the head of the Ver.di service workers' union. "It has to be in everyone's interest to proceed with this investigation. That's why I would always support Snowden's application for asylum in Germany."
Author Hans Magnus Enzensberger is outraged over the fact that no one has done anything for Snowden. "Many admire him, but no one lifts a finger for him." And Green Party co-Chairman Simone Peter says: "The federal government would be well advised to offer a man like this protection and residency."
"I would like to see Snowden receive asylum in a democratic country that places democracy before all other interests and alliances," says film star Daniel Brühl.
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