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German response to NSA scandal reflects country’s changing role

Berlin rules out asylum for Edward Snowden, but his revelations mark a possible turn in relations with Washington. The question is in which direction.

Us embassy berlin 11 05 2013Enlarge
The US embassy in Berlin. Will it become more important to Washington? (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

BERLIN, Germany — Government officials are swiftly backpedaling on the possibility of offering asylum or safe passage to the American whistleblower Edward Snowden as the potential damage to US relations sinks in.

“There is no reason to grant asylum to Edward Snowden. He is not facing political persecution,” Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich told a Munich newspaper Tuesday, apparently squashing mounting calls for an agreement for Snowden to testify before a parliamentary committee here.

Offering the former NSA contractor a deal would be “the termination letter for the transatlantic partnership” between Germany and the US, Free Democratic Party chairman Christian Lindner told the Berliner Zeitung.

But the real news lies between the lines, and reflects the authorities’ grappling with their country’s emerging role as Europe’s most influential state.

After World War II, West Germany — the capitalist Federal Republic of Deutschland — became a rubber stamp ally of the United States, on which it depended for economic aid and, for many years more, military protection.

Since the end of the Cold War and German reunification, however, the country has grown increasingly uncomfortable with that role, especially as it’s emerged as Europe’s economic powerhouse during the past decade.

Germany has taken an ever-larger role in foreign policy since 2001, including by reorienting its military in order to take part in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The euro crisis cemented its role as Europe’s de facto leader. Now Snowden’s revelations are prompting questions about whether Germany will remain an all-weather ally like Britain or a trickier one like France.

Deutsche Welle’s Volker Wagener believes the relationship with the United States continues to follow the “master and servant principle.”

But there's more pressure now than ever on Chancellor Angela Merkel to assert Germany's sovereignty, which could mark an important turning point.

The country’s data protection commissioner Peter Schaar, who’s leading calls to enact tough new regulations that would safeguard Germans’ privacy, says a way can be found to enable Snowden to testify in Germany in exchange for protection from US prosecution.

“It's more or less a political question of how far in our national interests it can be justified,” he told GlobalPost.

Last week, the Green Party's Hans-Christian Ströbele took the initiative by flying to Moscow for a secret meeting with Snowden before announcing the whistleblower had agreed to testify before German investigators in exchange for asylum or safe passage to another country that would protect him from extradition to the US.

Various leaders, including Merkel's own interior minister, joined the chorus, even as officials traveled to Washington this week to hammer out details of a so-called no-spying pact.

But reports that the two countries’ top intelligence officials will finalize that deal by early next year — together with the sudden flurry of explanations as to why asylum for Snowden isn't necessary after all — suggest the whistleblower's revelations are as likely to tighten the Merkel-Obama embrace as to drive a wedge between them.

The no-spying pact will probably concern sharing secrets as much as curtailing surveillance, according to reports in Der Spiegel and Deutsche Welle.

That could elevate Berlin’s alliance with Washington by making it responsible for building its own all-powerful internet surveillance operation.

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The model for the pact is probably the longstanding “Five Eyes” alliance, under which the English-speaking nations of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the US agree not to spy on each other and to share intelligence information.

Like the recent German military reorientation — which reversed the decades-long stance that German soldiers should never again fight on foreign soil — that would make Berlin a closer and more valuable ally for Washington. But it would also require debate about what kind of country Germans want to live in.

“Membership in this exclusive club means [one has] to share information with the other four eyes or four members and to help in the field of mass surveillance,” data commissioner Schaar said.

“This would not be in compliance with our fundamental rights as defined in our basic law and confirmed by our constitutional court.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/germany/131105/germany-nsa-scandal-reflects-snowden-asylum