There are few things that can unite the quarrelling factions of the European Parliament, but somehow US President Barack Obama managed to accomplish it this morning. One by one, MEPs from various political factions denounced in the strongest terms the recent revelations of US government access to user activity data from internet giants like Google, Facebook and Microsoft – a programme that went under the codename PRISM.
Interestingly, it was the assurances the US President gave to the American people this weekend that seemed to infuriate the European lawmakers the most. The PRISM programme “does not apply to US citizens and it does not apply to people living the United States,” he told a press conference on 7 June.
These words may have reassured many Americans, but they have put America's allies in an awkward position. Sites like Google and Facebook are global, after all, and widely used in Europe. If they aren't spying on Americans' internet use, then that means they are spying on people in other countries - including allies in Europe.
“What is coming from other side of the Atlantic is very worrying because they are justifying this system by saying it is not applicable to US citizens, only to foreigners,” Belgian Liberal MEP Guy Verhofstadt said in Strasbourg this morning. “Who are the foreigners? I think we are the foreigners, the Europeans.”
"This is us,” echoed Dutch MEP Sophie In 't Veld during an emergency debate held in the plenary session. "What kind of special relationship is that?"
"It is completely unacceptable that the US have different rules [for] US citizens and citizens of other countries,” agreed conservative German MEP Manfred Weber. "The US approach is not our approach but we work together as partners.”
The European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, also joined in on the condemnation. "Programmes such as the so-called PRISM and the laws on the basis of which such programmes are authorised potentially endanger the fundamental right to privacy and to data protection of EU citizens," Tonio Borg, European commissioner for health and consumer policy, told the MEPs. He promised that the Commission would grill their American counterparts on the subject at an EU-US ministerial meeting in Dublin on Friday.
However it did not go unnoticed that despite the fact that they were present in Strasbourg, the Commission president and vice president were not the ones who had come down to the chamber to reassure MEPs. Though it had been expected that Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding would be the one to brief MEPs on the issue, instead it was Borg, who only joined the Commission a few months ago.
The fact that such a ‘junior' member of the Commission was the one sent to deliver the message may reflect the political sensitivity around this issue. While individual European lawmakers are condemning the snooping revelations, it is widely suspected that EU member states have cooperated with the US in this snooping and benefitted from the information, possibly illegally.
Hannes Swoboda, leader of the centre-left group in the Parliament, said he suspects there has been “some cooperation” by EU national governments with the programme. He said the vague explanations given by British foreign minister William Hague after the news broke were not reassuring. It is suspected that the UK government would have been the main European beneficiary of this snooping.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the British conservatives were the only group in the Parliament today to defend the US programme. "Those companies already named and shamed have so far denied acting outside the law,” said British Conservative MEP Timothy Kirkhope. “Yet here we are already pointing the finger, some of you already expressing anti-American or anti-commission rhetoric."
"It might also be worth some people in this room remembering who the real enemy is, and where it is, and that when we deal with allies, and when we want answers and the truth, that friends listen most when you talk, and not when you shout,” he added.
But Kirkhope's sentiments were not widely shared in Strasbourg today. Some MEPs, including Swoboda, even suggested that the issue will effect ongoing negotiations toward an EU-US trade deal.
It is thought the Parlaiment's civil liberties committee will hold a special hearing on the issue. Other MEPs said this morning that the PRISM case illustrates the need for a global treaty on data privacy.
With so much about the PRISM programme still unclear, this may be a story that is just beginning.