Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė said trade negotiations between the European Union and the United States would start with contacts between "professional specialists” who would look into reports that a US spy agency monitored phone calls and e-mails of EU institutions and some member states.
Grybauskaitė, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU Council of Ministers, acknowledged “some complications” over the US electronic surveillance programme Prism, but said the trade talks would start on 8 July.
European and US intelligence experts will meet at the same time on allegations that the US monitored communications at several EU offices.
The Lithuanian leader, who appeared tense and nervous during a new conference in Vilnius, said there had been a telephone conversation on 2 July between US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who apparently agreed on the way to deal with the spying allegations.
“There is an agreement, or at least it was agreed between political leaders, that there will be a first round of parallel talks on trade and together there will be two groups of professional specialists to be created to investigate the information that was published," Grybauskaitė said.
The first group would be on data protection and the second one on intelligence matters. US Attorney General Eric Holder had sent a letter to the EU institutions with a proposal to launch these as soon as possible, the Lithuanian president said.
“And we have the US attorney general’s letter to the EU, with a proposal to meet as soon as possible. There is clear possibility that these meetings could take place on 8 July, especially on the data-protection group,” she said.
Grybauskaitė added that the group on intelligence was “not an EU responsibility” but a prerogative of member states.
“But these two groups will work in parallel to the free-trade negotiations. So we hope that we are going to be able to manage these two parallel processes, not jeopardising our future trade negotiations with our partners. And the questions will be resolved in a way that will satisfy us with the received information,” she said.
Asked if the EU would seek to exclude privacy protection from the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations, Grybauskaitė said the mandate of these talks was already agreed, and that “at least until now”, there had been no discussion to change the mandate. The European Commission had “all rights” to start negotiations, she insisted.
Asked about the spying allegations, Grybauskaitė said that what happened was not a matter of “fixing something with an apology”, but rather of “seeking for clarity, cooperation and exchange of information”.
“And this is coming. From the US side this is already declared. They are open to cooperate, they are open to explain, and this is important for future cooperation, having in mind intelligence security for both regions, US and Europe, concerning international terrorism. Of course, data protection is absolutely essential, it is an absolute priority for us to be protected, and here we need very clear answers,” she said.
“I don’t seek apology from anybody, I seek information, I seek results. That’s it,” she said.
Asked to comment if the EU could negotiate with the US on a trade agreement in the face of the spying allegations unveiled by whistleblower Edward Snowden, she said that the allegations should not be taken lightly.
“The information which [Snowden] passed, you need to trust it first, especially if the information is passed from Moscow … you need to be cautious five times even more,” Grybauskaitė said, adding that Lithuania had reasons to question the role of Moscow at a time when the EU and the US were about to negotiate a new geopolitical deal.
“Why we are so careful? Exactly because of our experience with this neighbour. We are very careful because of this very interesting timing, when this information became available to the public. So before everything is clarified, we cannot trust, or use this,” she said.
Lithuanian Justice Minister Juozas Bernatonis said he was less concerned that US intelligence could access EU trade positions and “more concerned about leaks of confidential information by the EU”.
“Everything gets published in the EU,” he said, referring to documents that should normally remain for internal use, but are leaked to the news media. “We should not be taken hostage by the publications concerning Prism.”