Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

When Freedom and Sovereignty Are Hollow Words

By Julio Godoy* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

BARCELONA (IDN) The German political comedian Karl Valentin once coined a wonderful phrase to parody the cowardice of people who betray their own will: “Mögen hätt’ ich schon wollen,” Valentin mocked them, “aber dürfen habe ich mich nicht getraut.” Loosely translated: “I actually would have loved to want, but I did not dare to can.”

Valentin’s grim humour is a perfect match for the present predicament of European governments vis-à-vis the U.S. and British global surveillance of telecommunications, revealed by the brave Edward Snowden. All heads of governments, from Angela Merkel in Germany to Mariano Rajoy in Spain, passing through François Hollande of France, have expressed their alleged outrage towards the U.S.  spying of their official and private telephone and Internet communications. All of them have used the same expression: What the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) have been doing all these years is “unacceptable.”

But it seems as if this European official fury is faked, aimed more to satisfy national audiences’ justified wish to defend sovereignty, than to warn the secret services in Washington or in London. For, when it comes down to actually taking steps to stop the U.S. and British spying on all of us, neither Berlin nor Paris, not to speak of Madrid, have the courage to dare.

In Germany, for instance, public pressure to take actions against the U.S. has been mounting since Snowden revealed that the NSA has been tapping chancellor Merkel’s telecommunications for several years. In this case, “take actions” means mostly that Germany should officially thank Snowden with a safe haven against U.S. prosecution, by offering him asylum, in addition to giving him a public forum to discuss the implications of U.S. and British global spying and how to protect German constituency against it.

Snowden, who enjoys protection by the Russian government until next summer, has said that he is ready to cooperate with German authorities to analyse the NSA scandal but only if he is allowed to travel to Germany. However, because the U.S. government has issued an international warrant against him, Snowden cannot leave Moscow without risking being extradited to Washington.

In a recent poll, the German political weekly Der Spiegel published opinions of 51 respected journalists, musicians, actors, and publishers on what Merkel’s government should do about Snowden.  All of them agreed that Snowden is “a hero”. All of them also urged the German government to give Snowden, who is trapped in Moscow, political asylum. As theatre manager Tom Stromberg put it, “For Snowden should apply: Something better than (protection under Vladimir) Putin should he find everywhere else,” a double reference, to a Middle Age German fable on oppression and freedom on the one hand, and to the present despotic Russian regime on the other.

In the same issue, Der Spiegel publishes an analysis of the magazine’s deputy chief-editor Klaus Brinkbäumer, in which he concludes that offering asylum to Snowden would be “a self-confident measure” for the German government, to retaliate “the embarrassment” caused by the NSA taping of Merkel’s telecommunications.

However, Merkel and her likely allies in the coming German government prefer to play, to use a U.S. expression, “the milquetoast.” Since the very beginning of the NSA affair early last summer, the German government preferred to downplay its dimensions and consequences. The head of chancellor Merkel’s bureau Roland Pofalla declared last August that the NSA has always respected German law, that there was no hard evidence that the NSA had been spying on practically all German citizens, and that therefore the affair was closed.

Merkel’s minister of the interior Hans Peter Friedrich even dismissed the revelations on the NSA global espionage as “naïve anti-Americanism” which “is pissing (him) off.” Last August, after a trip to Washington to discuss with U.S. government officials the NSA activities in Germany, Friedrich came back to Berlin convinced that the accusations against the agency had “ended in smoke.”


Other European governments also preferred to be chicken. Last July, Austria, France, and Spain violated the most elementary diplomatic norms when they forced the airplane of Bolivian president Evo Morales, flying from Moscow to La Paz,  to reroute, to stop it and search it. They feared that Morales had provided Snowden a free ticket to leave Moscow and flee to South America. As Bolivian ambassador to the United Nations, Sacha Llorenti, said at the time, these European governments were following “orders … from the United States.” Indeed, European governments behaved as vassals of the United States of America.

Now, after Snowden revealed that the NSA tapped the telecommunications of heads of state or government around the world, including those of Angela Merkel’s, Francois Hollande’s and Mariano Rajoy’s, such behaviour is the more embarrassing for Pofalla, Friedrich, and the Austrian, French, and Spanish governments.

And yet, the German ministers (and most likely, all their European counterparts) continue to oppose the calls to offer Snowden political asylum in Germany. Their reasons are political, not legal, for practically all experts agree that Germany would not be obliged to extradite Snowden to the U.S.: The bilateral agreement on extradition expressly does not cover political offences as defined by German political penal code. According to German law, the revelation of state secrets is a political offence, and as such, is not covered by the extradition agreement with the U.S. In other words, Germany can offer political asylum to Snowden and must not extradite him.

Alas, as Karl Valentin said, Germany would very much love to give Snowden asylum, but it does not have the courage to dare. This pusillanimity is not exclusive of the present government. It is shared by the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which is likely to rule Germany during the next four years as junior partner in coalition with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union.

As Thomas Oppermann, leading SPD security expert and most likely new minister of the interior, said in an interview, Germany must achieve three objectives: First, Germany must clarify the NSA global espionage and end it in Europe. To do that, it needs the help of Edward Snowden, under the conditions mentioned above. Second, it has to offer Snowden a permanent humanitarian solution for his present situation; and third, according to Oppermann, Germany must protect its relations with the U.S. government. How Germany, and by extension Europe, could achieve the first two aims without endangering the alliance with the U.S., Oppermann did not say.

The Good Ones and the Neighbours

The alliance with the U.S. that Oppermann would like to preserve intact recalls John F. Kennedy’s policy towards Latin America, officially dubbed “the good neighbourhood.” As Latin American critics of the U.S. abusive policies towards the region said at the time: In this context, we, Latin Americans, are the good ones, and the U.S. the neighbours. But what alliance with the U.S. Oppermann wants to preserve intact? Snowden’s revelations indeed indicate the necessity for Europe – and other regions of the world too – to reconsider this alliance, and put it on a new basis, which would respect each other’s sovereignty. That can only be possible by teaching the U.S. government the lessons – for instance, granting Edward Snowden political protection and a safe haven, away from the arbitrariness of Wladimir Putin – it seems too supercilious and impudent to learn.

German reactions to past U.S. arbitrariness give a hint how it will behave in Snowden’s case, and not reconcile Oppermann’s three objectives: Last September, the German writer Ilja Trojanow signed a public declaration against the NSA global surveillance, calling it “an attack against freedom.” Some weeks later, Trojanow was scheduled to participate in a literary conference in Denver, Colorado. He was scheduled to travel from Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, to the U.S. But at the Brazilian city’s airport, local transport authorities informed him that despite of satisfying all legal requirements to enter the U.S., he was not allowed to travel.

The U.S. government simply prohibited Trojanow to board the airplane. Commenting the incident, he said, “It is more than ironic if an author who raises his voice against the dangers of surveillance and the secret state within a state for years, will be denied entry into the ‘land of the brave and the free’.”

Germany simply ignored this U.S. action and never complained about it. What would it do the next time, when the U.S. government prohibits the entry in its territory of all the German political, cultural, and journalistic personalities who have dared to support Snowden? Right now it is only a rhetorical question.

Julio Godoy | Credit: ICIJ - International Consortium of Investigative Journalists*Julio Godoy is an investigative journalist and IDN Associate Global Editor. He has won international recognition for his work, including the Hellman-Hammett human rights award, the Sigma Delta Chi Award for Investigative Reporting Online by the U.S. Society of Professional Journalists, and the Online Journalism Award for Enterprise Journalism by the Online News Association and the U.S.C. Annenberg School for Communication, as co-author of the investigative reports “Making a Killing: The Business of War” and “The Water Barons: The Privatisation of Water Services”. [IDN-InDepthNews – November 6, 2013]

Top image credit: Wikimedia Commons | Bottom Picture: Julio Godoy  – Credit: ICIJ

The writer’s other IDN articles:

2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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