The Snowden Dilemma

Merkel caught between Washington and her domestic public

17/04/2014 | Category: Cyber Security, Germany

by Bettina Vestring


Angela Merkel would like nothing better than to leave the NSA scandal behind. The German chancellor wants no shadow cast over her upcoming visit to Washington. But Merkel’s domestic public is not playing along. Germans stubbornly persist in considering the NSA’s whistleblower Edward Snowden a hero. This feeds into a strong current of anti-Americanism – with dangerous long-term consequences for the transatlantic relationship.

It’s a high honor that the University of Rostock in northeastern Germany is bestowing on Edward Snowden: by an overwhelming majority, the humanities division decided last week to award him an honorary doctorate. “Snowden is an enlightener,” said Dean Hans-Jürgen von Wensierski, adding that the whistleblower had sacrificed his social and professional existence in order to call attention to grievous ills.

In the meantime, the Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe in southwestern Germany is putting on a play about Snowden and why he decided to reveal the US National Security Agency’s spying programs. Director Jan Linders said the play explores Snowden’s inner conflict between his patriotism and his sense of justice.

Snowden also recently received the first-ever Julia and Winston Award, named after the heroes of George Orwell’s novel 1984. In his laudation, Heribert Prantl, a well-known newspaper commentator, said Snowden was a symbol of civic courage. “He is a minuscule David who stood up against a super Goliath,” Prantl said.

All of these honors were announced just over the past week. There can be no doubt that to the German public, Edward Snowden remains a figure of light. According to polls, 60 percent of Germans consider the 30-year-old computer specialist a hero, reflecting a strong current of anti-Americanism in Germany. Only 14 percent said he was a criminal for betraying his country’s secrets.

No wonder, then, that the German government has a problem. On the one hand, it cannot entirely ignore Snowden’s enormous popularity; on the other hand, it does not want to endanger relations with the United States or question the close cooperation between the two countries’ intelligence services. The German agencies know that without information from Washington, they would be crippled.

Angela Merkel herself has never been keen to challenge the United States over the spying scandal. Even when Snowden revealed last summer that the NSA had tapped her cell phone, the chancellor’s reaction remained muted, at least in public. Once she was reelected last September, the issue of the NSA snooping extensively on America’s closest allies was quickly pushed off the political agenda.

Her new allies in government, the Social Democrats, happily went along with this. During the election campaign, SPD party chief Sigmar Gabriel sharply attacked President Barack Obama over the spying scandal. Once in power, the Social Democrats toned down their remarks.

By the time that Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited Washington in February, he had long given up on the demand for a “no-spy agreement.” Instead, both sides agreed to enter a vague “cyber dialogue” – a result that Steinmeier said he was very happy with.

A government can pull off that kind of turn-around far more easily than a parliament whose members are directly exposed to public opinion. In the Bundestag, the lawmakers of Merkel’s coalition are finding it difficult to downplay the NSA scandal. The Bundestag set up a special committee mandated to investigate not just NSA spying, but also the help the NSA received from German government agencies.

It is this investigative committee that is now causing Merkel headaches. With huge public support, the opposition Greens and the Left Party are pushing for Edward Snowden to be heard as a key witness. Yet there are no circumstances under which the US government would look at such questioning kindly – Washington continues to regard Snowden quite simply as a traitor.

Given Snowden’s exile in Russia, the situation is even more complicated. Were he invited to testify in Berlin in person, the German government would be caught between American demands for extradition and the German public’s wish to grant him political asylum. Yet given the situation in Ukraine, it is not possible for committee members to travel to Moscow for a hearing session with Snowden, either. However, even a video conference, the most likely option, is certain to cause new strains on German-American relations.

Under this pressure, the chairman of the investigative committee, Clemens Binninger, resigned from his post last week. As a member of Merkel’s party, he had done his best to dampen expectations of a Snowden hearing. When he stepped down, he blamed the opposition parties for being adversarial.

In fact, Binninger’s resignation brought the chancellery a much-appreciated respite. Under its new chairman Patrick Sensburg, also a Christian Democrat, the committee immediately decided to postpone any decision on Snowden until May – significant because Angela Merkel is planning a visit to the United States early that month.

Such political maneuvering may improve Merkel’s standing in Washington, but it does little to placate her domestic audience. For historical reasons, Germans are extremely keen on data protection. Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s massive snooping have seriously damaged America’s reputation here. As long as governments of both countries appear unwilling to restrict the spying, trust will continue to erode.

The fact that anti-Americanism is on the rise is not just reflected in the hero worship accorded Snowden. Other areas are less visible, but even more damaging. There is a real risk that the negotiations over a new Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) may fail because there is simply not enough trust between Europe and America. Not even the Ukraine crisis has restored anything like a common sense of purpose. For sure, Edward Snowden has cast a long shadow.


BETTINA VESTRING is a freelance journalist based in Berlin. She writes on foreign and security policy and EU affairs.

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