Until early this week, Angela Merkel's re-election campaign had gone entirely to her liking. The center-left candidate Peer Steinbrück was having trouble gaining traction, controversial issues were few and far between and the chancellor herself was content to pursue her preferred campaign strategy: that of saying and doing as little as possible.
If only the Americans hadn't gotten in the way.
Revelations that Washington has spent years spying on the European Union and monitoring Germans as they surf the Internet have suddenly injected a bit of suspense into the campaign. And Social Democrat leader Sigmar Gabriel on Thursday showed that he is not about to let the opportunity go to waste.
In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Gabriel demanded that German federal prosecutors launch an investigation against the leaders of America's National Security Agency intelligence service, and those of its British counterpart GCHQ. "I would find it appropriate were the public prosecutors' office to pursue proceedings against those responsible for the American and British intelligence agencies," Gabriel said. He said that those in Germany who were involved should also be investigated.
The SPD chairman also demanded that German prosecutors travel to Moscow to question Edward Snowden, the former NSA employee who is responsible for leaking information regarding the extent of NSA spying. Snowden is currently believed to be in the transit section of the Moscow international airport. Earlier this week, he sought asylum in several countries around the world, including Germany. Berlin rebuffed his request on Tuesday evening.
"The first step has to be that public prosecutors travel to Moscow to depose Mr. Snowden as a witness," Gabriel said. "If they come away with the impression that he is a reliable witness, then admitting him to the witness protection program must be considered. All we have to do is just let our legal system do its normal work. I expect as much from our government."
Gabriel's comments come during a week in which Merkel's government has been under pressure to come up with an adequate response to a report in SPIEGEL that the NSA bugged EU diplomatic representations in both Washington and New York. Furthermore, the report indicated that the NSA tried to gain access to an EU telecommunications system in Brussels. The information came from documents obtained by Snowden. According to those documents, the US intelligence agency likewise keeps a close watch on Internet and mobile phone communications in Germany.
On Wednesday night, according to statements released by both the White House and the Chancellery, Merkel spoke with US President Barack Obama about US intelligence gathering. Washington has promised to hold high-level meetings with German security officials "in the coming days" to talk about the spying allegations.
Merkel, though, finds herself in an uncomfortable situation. On the one hand, she has made it clear that US spying and overzealous surveillance is "unacceptable" and she has also repeatedly compared American intelligence activities to that which took place on both sides during the Cold War, when the US and the Soviet Union engaged in vast espionage.
Merkel's Achilles Heel
Yet an extended disagreement with the US is not in Germany's interest, particularly now that talks on a trans-Atlantic free trade agreement are imminent. Germany sees such a deal as a cheap way to stimulate the moribund European Union economy and is not willing to drop talks on principle. Indeed, Merkel and Obama reiterated their joint support for the deal during their conversation on Wednesday night, according to the White House press release.
Merkel, in other words, suddenly has an Achilles heel. Public opinion in Germany would seem to be one of overwhelming concern about the reach of US surveillance operations and most seem to have a great deal of sympathy for Edward Snowden. An unscientific online survey undertaken by SPIEGEL ONLINE this week found that almost 85 percent of those who responded are in favor of granting Snowden permission to stay in Germany. Other online surveys have arrived at similar numbers.
The SPD and other opposition parties have taken note and have not been shy this week about trying to take advantage. Gabriel said in his interview, for example, that his party continues to believe that intelligence services do not have the right to monitor everybody's communications.
"If that no longer applies in the Internet age, then we are destroying the values-based foundation of our society," he said. "And also the values that have bound the US together with Europe for decades. In this community of values, individual freedom and personal privacy are paramount. It is exactly this which differentiated us from the Communist Bloc."
The Green Party has also demanded a stronger reaction from Berlin and has been particularly vocal about demanding that Merkel's government either provide asylum to Snowden or bring him to Germany as part of the witness protection program. On Wednesday, the party launched an online petition demanding protection for the whistleblower. Berlin's refusal to grant asylum to Snowden is "a disgrace for Germany, a disgrace for Europe and a disgrace for democracy," said Jürgen Trittin, parliamentary floor leader for the Greens, on Wednesday.
But it isn't just the opposition that is criticizing the government's handling of the spying allegations. Chancellor Merkel's junior coalition partners, the Free Democrats, have been struggling in public opinion polls for weeks and there is concern that, in September elections, the party won't manage to clear the 5 percent hurdle necessary for parliamentary representation. Their critique of Washington's surveillance techniques has been correspondingly shrill.
Leading the way has been outspoken Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger who demanded immediate clarification from the US on Sunday, as the first media reports were emerging.
On Thursday, it was the turn of senior party member Christian Lindner. He called for the immediate suspension of all data-exchange agreements with the US. "Data exchange should only be resumed when a joint understanding of civil freedoms exists," Lindner said in an interview with the German daily Die Welt.
It remains to be seen whether Merkel will suffer in the polls as a result of the NSA revelations. No public opinion surveys have been conducted since the SPIEGEL story hit the newsstands on Monday. But even if she doesn't lose ground immediately, the issue is almost certain to play a major role in the rest of the campaign. And the chancellor's every move will be closely watched.