In a short and stormy debate in Strasbourg, called by the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, MEPs of all parties reacted with disappointment to reports that the US National Security Agency had been snooping on EU citizens’ information.
Whistleblower Ed Snowden revealed last week that the NSA has secret wide-reaching authority to snoop on emails and internet communications using a data-mining programme called Prism.
According to documents leaked to the Washington Post and Guardian newspapers, the programme gave US officials access to emails, web chats and other communications from companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter and Skype.
One rule for US citizens, another for Europeans
US President Obama has defended it as a "modest encroachment" on privacy and reassured US citizens that no one is listening to their phone calls.
But US law puts virtually no eavesdropping restrictions on the communications of foreigners, so US authorities could theoretically access private internet communications of Europeans.
“We need to ensure that similar judicial redress as is afforded to US residents would be offered to European citizens,” Tonio Borg, the commissioner for consumer affairs, told the Parliament during the debate in Strasbourg.
He told MEPs that Reding would raise the issue with Holder on Thursday, and then report back to the legal affairs committee of the Parliament next week (19 June) to outline the progress of her talks.
Not possible to lecture Iraq, Egypt
British MEP Claude Moraes (Socialists & Democrats) said citizens had been “shocked” by a “major breach of trust”.
“500,000,000 Europeans people were shocked to find a foreign country has access to the most intimate details of their private lives,” added Dutch MEP Sophia in ‘t Veld (ALDE).
“We cannot be surprised to find the Americans spying on us. We have asked questions again and again but we get no answers from the EU Commission[… ] How can we tell the governments of Iraq and Egypt that they should not spy on their citizens when we are doing the same,” she told the Parliament.
In‘t Veld also condemned the fact that the US offers stronger protection for US citizens than their EU counterparts, a common criticism during the debate.
“It is completely unacceptable that the US has different rules for US citizens on the one hand and those from elsewhere on the other,” said German MEP Manfred Weber (European People's Party).
Remember who the real enemy is
Weber called for internet companies implicated in the allegations and the UK’s ‘secret services’ – also implicated in the scandal – to clarify their positions.
However UK Conservative MEP Timothy Kirkhope said that it was “too early to draw final conclusions”, criticised the Parliament for “pointing the finger”, and using strong anti American and anti-Commission rhetoric “without pausing to gather facts or proof”.
“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," Kirkhope added.