Some European Union officials have called for suspending talks on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership over revelations that the U.S. has been spying on the EU’s official communications. As Elmar Brok, chairman of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, put it, “How are you supposed to negotiate when you have to worry that your negotiating positions were intercepted?”
Reports in the German magazine Der Spiegel, based on classified documents obtained by former American intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, started the fuss. They say the U.S. National Security Agency wiretapped diplomatic missions in Washington and New York, infiltrated computer networks, and eavesdropped in Brussels. European Parliament President Martin Schulz said that if the reports were true, “it is a huge scandal.” German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said such surveillance would be “utterly inappropriate.”
But the EU and the U.S. have different aims in many areas—they disagree on everything from genetically modified organisms to data privacy. The U.S. has an especially strong interest in compliance with sanctions, bribery by foreign companies, and threats to U.S. intellectual property. In furthering national interests, electronic spying is a universally practiced tool of the trade.
International law on the subject is vague and undeveloped. As Michael Hayden, the former NSA and Central Intelligence Agency director, said on June 30, “Any European who wants to go out and rend their garments with regard to international espionage should look first and find out what their own governments are doing.”
Faux outrage is another universally practiced tool of the trade, and needn’t cause harm unless governments do dumb things to show they’re serious. Threatening the U.S.-EU trade talks is a very dumb thing. The European Commission has estimated the deal could yield annual economic benefits of more than $150 billion for the EU and almost $130 billion for the U.S. Perhaps the EU can find a way to be deeply, deeply shocked by what all governments are up to without putting those enormous mutual gains at risk.