Reding in Washington EU Sends Tough Commissioner for NSA Talks

The EU is remaining firm with Washington over US spying, with officials in Brussels demanding better protection for Europeans. Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding is heading to Washington on Monday with a number of demands.
EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding says data protection in Europe is 'non-negotiable.'

EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding says data protection in Europe is 'non-negotiable.'


When the European Union wants to signal that it's serious about an issue, it dispatches Viviane Reding. And that's exactly the plan for Monday, when the tough EU justice commissioner is set to meet with her counterpart, Attorney General Eric Holder, in Washington to discuss the consequences of the National Security Agency (NSA) spying scandal .

Reding, who is from Luxembourg, has a reputation in the US capital for being a formidable opponent. Her decisive attempts to ensure that Europeans enjoy the same rights to data protection  as US citizens have not necessarily been welcome, though. "If Reding wants to continue keeping big US companies away from Europe, then she shouldn't be surprised if Europe is soon as isolated as North Korea," one high-level person working on trans-Atlantic issues said.

But ahead of the meeting with Holder, Reding's resolve remained unbroken. "Data protection is a fundamental right in Europe," she told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Fundamental rights are non-negotiable. Period."

Due to the misuse of personal data by the US intelligence agency, the trans-Atlantic relationship  is mired in a true crisis of confidence, she added. "The Americans' approach has been shocking. I'm on a fact-finding mission in Washington. Are the Americans ready to restore lost trust? Are they prepared to see us as partners instead of opponents?"

'I Want Clarity'

The justice commissioner isn't sure what the answers to these questions will be. The current EU-US agreement on mutual legal assistance -- which focuses in particular on American IT companies in Europe whose data can be accessed by US officials -- has not been adhered to by the Americans, Reding said. And with respect to a framework agreement on law enforcement and judicial cooperation she stated: "The American government must guarantee the legal protection of EU  citizens in the US," she said. "I want clarity. The European parliament will never vote in favor of an agreement that doesn't clear up this point."

The question is whether Reding's determination will do anything to sway the Americans. So far, US government sources have signaled that they want to gain the greatest freedom possible within the EU for the data streams of Internet companies like Google, Amazon or Microsoft. As the global market leaders, they're also in a strong position, especially given that the Europeans have done little to build up companies that can compete.

Politically, it is also unlikely that much will change right now. When Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner recently discussed his plans in Brussels for more closely monitoring the NSA, the privacy of foreigners didn't play a role. He said he was concerned about improved observation of the NSA's work on US soil. And much-discussed legislation by Senate Intelligence Committee chair Diane Feinstein to rein in NSA spying is also unlikely to deliver much progress. Her bill even makes it possible for foreigners to be spied on for up to 72 hours without requiring any kind of court approval.

Kerry's 'Trans-Atlantic Renaissance'

Sources in Washington told SPIEGEL the Americans would prefer a diplomatic solution and that Secretary of State John Kerry would travel to Berlin as soon as a new German government is in place. His planned trip is part of a charm offensive aimed at easing tensions with the Europeans over the recent revelations about American spying . Kerry has already called for a "trans-Atlantic renaissance." Meanwhile, his assistant secretary of state for European affairs, Victoria Nuland, said last week there would be a "doubling down" of the trans-Atlantic relationship -- particularly on issues like the planned free-trade agreement and energy security.

Christopher Murphy, a Democrat and the head of the Senate Subcommittee on European Affairs, plans to travel to Berlin on Nov. 24 together with a high-profile delegation. Two days later, Murphy will also travel to Brussels. He says he wants to discuss "legitimate concerns" by "our European allies" about the nature and scope of US intelligence programs."

But is the White House even behind such reconciliatory efforts? President Barack Obama still hasn't issued any official apology to Merkel over the NSA's eavesdropping on her mobile phone . When Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, made a rare public appearance at the Aspen Ideas Forum last week, the NSA scandal wasn't even a topic of discussion.

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