The New York Times

October 25, 2013

Germany and France Propose Talks With U.S. to Rein In Spying


BRUSSELS — The leaders of Germany and France offered on Friday to hold talks with the United States in an effort come up with mutually acceptable rules for surveillance operations, easing a trans-Atlantic spying dispute that has plunged relations between America and Europe to a low point.

Fury over reports that American intelligence had monitored the cellphone of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany spread from there to other European leaders a day earlier and prompted calls to suspend trade talks with the United States.

Seeking to rebuild trust among the longstanding allies, Ms. Merkel said at an early-morning news conference here that a pact should be agreed to by the end of the year ending the kind of surveillance that was made public as part of the disclosure of documents harvested by Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor.

The aim is to “come to a common understanding of the services between the United States and Germany and France so that we put down a framework for cooperation,” Mrs. Merkel said after European Union leaders ended a first day of talks.

In a joint statement, the 28 European Union leaders at the two-day summit meeting “took note of the intention of France and Germany to seek bilateral talks” with the United States. The leaders also “noted that other E.U. countries are welcome to join this initiative,” which they said “underlined the close relationship between Europe and the U.S.A. and the value of that partnership.”

The revelations about the eavesdropping on Ms. Merkel follow reports of extensive American electronic surveillance in France and suggestions that American and British intelligence services monitored and are probably still monitoring Italian telecommunications networks.

But in a further sign of a willingness to defuse the dispute, Ms. Merkel said at the news conference that the leaders meeting in Brussels had not talked about interrupting negotiations with the United States to reach a landmark trade deal aimed at reducing tariffs and aligning regulations.

“I always take the view that when you leave the room, you have to always contemplate how to get back in again,” said Ms. Merkel, referring to the importance of keeping the trade talks going. “In such a tense situation, such talks may be even more important than usual.”

Asked whether she wanted an apology from the United States, Ms. Merkel said, “The most important thing at this juncture is to find a basis for the future” so that “trust can be rebuilt.” But she warned the United States that “words will not be sufficient” to make amends, adding, “It’s become clear for the future that things have to change, and they have to change radically.”

She also suggested that the door had been left open to a possible suspension of an agreement with the United States that allows it to track the finances of terrorist groups. Lawmakers at the European Parliament voted earlier this week to suspend the agreement because of suspicions that the United States authorities were tapping European citizens’ personal financial data.

That agreement is important to Washington because it allows American authorities to continue having access to European banking data from a cooperative responsible for routing trillions of dollars daily among banks, brokerage houses, stock exchanges and other institutions. The cooperative, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or Swift, is based near Brussels. It provided the United States with personal data after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“I have a certain understanding for the position of the European Parliament,” Ms. Merkel said. Approval by the European Union’s member states is required for the resolution to take effect.

Some European Union officials have seized on the latest revelations about United States snooping as a way to give new momentum to a fiercely contested proposal that could require American companies like Google and Yahoo to seek clearance from European officials before complying with United States warrants seeking private data.

The legislation would also seek to bolster privacy protection in Europe with fines that could run to billions of euros on the biggest technology companies if they fail to adhere to rules like those limiting the sharing of personal data.

The proposal has met with fierce opposition from business groups in the United States and Europe. Countries like Britain have pushed strongly to delay any final decision rather than endorse the deadline of spring 2014 called for by European Union officials and lawmakers to adopt the rules.

The British view appeared to have prevailed by Friday morning. In their statement, the 28 leaders agreed that it was “important to foster the trust of citizens and businesses in the digital economy,” but they said adopting the privacy rules by 2015 would be sufficient.