The NSA and GCHQ revelations have left many of us across Europe feeling that we have lost basic freedoms and fearing they could be lost forever. And we’re angry. And want our governments to reclaim these freedoms, by any means necessary. And finally, our governments are responding to the public mood.
The German and Spanish foreign ministers have summoned US ambassadors over spying allegations for the first time in living memory. France and Germany sent top advisors to Washington to demand a “no-spying” agreement with the United States. The EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding has threatened an EU-wide rejection of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership to protect the privacy of EU citizens.
Snowden is regarded as a terrorist
Yet across the Channel, the mood is different. British Prime Minister David Cameron is the only European leader to determinedly come out in defence of transatlantic spying. He has slammed “The Guardian’s” ‘irresponsible’ journalism in publishing ‘damaging leaks’ and criticized other European leaders for their “lah-di-dah, airy fairy” approach to national security and their reluctance to play a decisive role in combating terrorism.
This chasm between the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe is stark. For most of us Europeans, the rejection of mass-scale surveillance and spying on one’s friends is not considered displaced from reality or naïve but a basic article of faith. In the UK, Edward Snowden is regarded as a terrorist. For us and our Justice Minister, Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger he is a source of crucial information, a witness and hero that will soon be recognized as such. The Nazis, Franco, the Stasi, the KGB, Mussolini – they all loom large in our collective memories: we know from experience that you have a lot to fear even if you do not believe that you have anything to hide. This collective memory, and the belief that free communication is a basic civil right, is a crucial aspect of what makes us European.
By our European understanding, an authoritarian government is one that does things like setting up large scale centres for secretly storing individuals’ private information, questions journalists under terrorism acts and demands that newspapers stop publishing certain information. Without the freedom to express one’s ideas, even the freedom to have them is pointless. These are freedoms that trump fear and need to be guaranteed regardless of terrorist threats, or any of the other real enemies we have.
If it emerges that our governments have been behaving just as badly as the GCHQ, it will only prove that they have violated our trust in them. It won’t alter our understanding, because the idea of a free society is something at the core of our being.
The UK has either lost or never had this sense. Instead, its leaders take pride in its partnership with the USA and its membership of the Five Eyes Pact. And, by most accounts, does so with the substantial support of its citizens. This begs the question: _how European is Britain_?
The values of a rogue state that doesn’t mind plastering its streets with CCTV cameras and genuinely sees no harm in storing every private communication between private individuals are basically incompatible with our own. What’s more, they pose a threat to upcoming EU policy decisions.
Bodges and compromises
To stop the perpetuation of the “surveillance-for-the-sake-of-security rhetoric()”:http://www.theeuropean-magazine.com/david-omand–2/7539-protecting-state-secrecy that began with the September 11 attacks over a decade ago, the EU member states must take decisive steps to guarantee the freedoms and liberties of their citizens. This means coming to a definitive understanding within the EU about what privacy means. It also entails strong negotiation with the US and may even reach as far as setting up a European Internet. Most European policy decisions are a result of bodges and compromises. But these aren’t the kind of issues we can compromise on.
It is quite possible that the UK will hold a referendum on European membership within the next 18 months. By this time economic policy may no longer be the single largest issue that divides us. This could be an opportunity for the UK to rethink its position on what it means to be European, to belong to a rights orientated community and to serve the interest of a free society.