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Snowden's revelations threaten trade talks, tarnish Obama's image.
BRUSSELS, Belgium — Next week was supposed to mark a turning point in trans-Atlantic relations as Europe and the United States open negotiations to seal history's biggest trade deal.
Instead, ongoing revelations of US spying on its allies have put the talks in doubt. With President Barack Obama's once-shining image in Europe deeply tarnished, the outrage pouring from European capitals is starting to resemble the darks days of division over the Iraq invasion.
"This has to stop as soon as possible, I mean right now," French President Francois Hollande said Monday. "We can’t have any negotiations, no dealings in any field unless we get these guarantees. That goes for France, but also for the whole of the European Union."
Leading European officials and a multitude of lawmakers are demanding a delay to the talks to create the world's largest free-trade zone that are due to kick off in Washington next Monday.
Obama has made the creation of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or T-TIP, a major foreign-policy priority. EU headquarters says the plan could inject an extra $159 billion a year into the bloc’s economy and generate $127 billion for the United States.
But the allegations from fugitive US intelligence agency contractor Edward Snowden that American spy agencies eavesdropped on the private communications of European citizens and bugged allies' embassies and government offices have put the plans in jeopardy.
"I don't see how an agreement on trade and investment can be concluded while these suspicions persist," said Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister who leads the Liberal Democrat group in the European Parliament. "Not a week goes by without some more shocking evidence of intrusive and illegal activities."
EU trade officials have been more sanguine.
As of Tuesday, they said there have been no formal requests from European governments to postpone the weeklong Washington talks.
Although a delay would strike a symbolic blow, it wouldn’t necessarily derail the negotiating process, which is expected to last at least 18 months, according to a well-placed European trade official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
The EU's trade chief is adamant the talks should go ahead. He suggests the Europeans would risk shooting themselves in the foot by stalling.
"I don't see a link between the two issues," European Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht told Belgium's RTBF radio Monday. "We're not negotiating to please the Americans, but because it's to our advantage, because it will create new jobs, create more growth and help us get out of this crisis."
The European Commission said late on Tuesday that the talks should start as planned, but that they would not be able to succeed without "confidence, transparency and clarity among the negotiating partners."
The espionage revelations give ammunition to opponents of the trade deal. They could also encourage the EU to play hardball on data-privacy issues, threatening years of diplomatic efforts by the Obama Administration to persuade the Europeans to share sensitive information.
Intelligence experts also suggest the Europeans could use to scandal to shut out American tech companies suspected of collaborating with US espionage agencies, or to justify state subsidies to support the development of European rivals.
"The new attempt to create a trans-Atlantic free trade community was always going to run into trouble for all sorts of reasons in countries like France," says Thomas Klau, who runs the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. "The growing debate about the legitimacy of US spying on the world, and the drawing in of major US companies into that effort, creates a very difficult political environment for such a project."
The Europeans have also been stung by the revelation that the Americans are sufficiently advanced to eavesdrop with ease, while European technology lags behind. The European Union doesn't even have an intelligence agency of its own and relies on patchy cooperation from the disparate spy networks of its member nations.
Still, Klau says, the level of US snooping should not have come as a surprise.
"Of course it was widely known to everyone working in the European secret and shadow service community — and every senior member of government who bothered to find out — that the Americans were listening in as much as they could to the global conversation," he says.
Nevertheless, the public indignation is genuine. Worryingly for Washington, it goes well beyond countries such as France, where wariness over US power traditionally runs deep.
"Big Brother is watching EU," the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza headlined.
"In the Snowden affair, the US appears to have more in common with Russia than with the Europeans," said an editorial in Austria's Wiener Zeitung. "Europe should have offered Snowden asylum."
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Unease runs particularly deep in Germany, where distaste for government snooping is deeply ingrained. German politicians have likened the activities of US agencies to the Stasi secret police, whose covert surveillance operations intruded on the private lives of millions in former-communist East Germany.
"The monitoring of friends, this is unacceptable, it cannot be tolerated," German Chancellor Angela Merkel — who grew up in East Germany — said Monday through her spokesman Steffen Seibert. "We are no longer in the Cold War."
Efforts by Obama and US Secretary of State John Kerry to justify the spying by suggesting everyone does it have failed to calm European concerns.
"Sure, they all do it, it's part of the game, but what's not allowed is getting caught doing it," says Axel Dyevre, a former French military officer who heads the Brussels office of the
Compagnie Europeenne d’Intelligence Strategique (CEIS), a risk-management consultancy.
"In the intelligence business, the moment you get caught out you're in the wrong. That's the nature of espionage."