US-EU trade talks at risk in spying furor

A senior EU official said Tuesday said it was urgent that Washington rebuilds trust with Europe, warning transatlantic trade talks were at risk after revelations Washington spied on EU leaders.

Viviane Reding, vice president of the European Commission and EU justice commissioner, said the revelations had "shaken and damaged" the relationship, and left Europeans feeling that they "are not seen as partners, but as a threat."

"Then you understand that as Europeans we are very concerned," she said about the furor over the US National Security Agency's tapping of phone conversations of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders.

"Friends and partners do not spy on each other," she said.

"For ambitious and complex negotiations to succeed there needs to be trust among the negotiating partners. It is urgent and essential that our US partners take clear action to rebuild trust."

Reding said the NSA spying, which included tapping the phone and Internet communications of millions of Europeans, got to the heart of a key issue in the ongoing Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks, aimed at establishing the world's largest free-trade zone.

She said the Europeans would not budge on their stance on strong protection for personal data, while the US wants companies -- particularly Internet-based firms -- to be able to have some access to users' data as they do in the United States.

"Data protection is a fundamental right," Reding told an audience at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

"The revelations about the activities of American intelligence agencies in Europe and the damage this has caused have brought renewed attention to this issue. There are things that cannot be justified by the fight against terrorism," she said.

"Data protection is not red tape or a tariff. It is a fundamental right and as such it is not negotiable."

She said Europe was moving rapidly toward an EU standard for personal data protection that was backed "overwhelmingly" in a vote in the European parliament last week.

Once a single set of rules is in place in Europe, she said, "we will expect the same from the US. Inter-operability and a system of self-regulation is not enough."

US officials said Tuesday that the TTIP talks should continue and that it would be unfortunate if the furor over Washington's spying disrupts them.

State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said the talks are "of vital importance" and one of a number of subjects that "it would be a mistake to not proceed on."

"Conversations regarding NSA surveillance activities are separate from our trade negotiations," a spokesperson for the US Trade Representative said in an email.

"It would be unfortunate to let these issues -- however important -- distract us from our mutual goal of negotiating a high-quality 21st century agreement that increases bilateral trade and investment, supports jobs, and increases our international competitiveness."

TTIP talks started in July after leaders from both sides pledged a deep commitment to completing an agreement by late 2014.

A second round of talks had been scheduled for early October, but was cancelled because of the US government shutdown, the result of the budget impasse in Congress.

The talks have not been rescheduled; Psaki said they are in the process of being rescheduled.