Speaking to the German Bundestag on Wednesday (29 January), Chancellor Angela Merkel denounced the NSA spying scandal but she was quick to warn against hasty reactions like abandoning the planned EU-US trade and investment partnership. The opposition accused her being submissive, EurActiv Germany reports.
Europeans have reacted angrily to allegations that a US intelligence agency had tapped the servers of Internet companies for personal data, saying such activity confirmed their fears about American Web giants' reach and showed that tighter regulations were needed just as the EU and US are about to launch trade talks.
In July, Paris prosecutors opened a preliminary inquiry into the NSA's programme, known as Prism, after Britain's Guardian newspaper and German magazine Der Spiegel revealed wide-scale spying by the agency leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
In Germany, where many are particularly sensitive about surveillance given the state's history of spying on its own people during the Cold War, there were protests about the NSA affair over the summer.
In the Bundestag on Wednesday (29 January), Chancellor Merkel presented the grand coalition's key goals for the new parliamentary term: solid finances, investment in the future, bolstering social cohesion and fulfilling Germany's responsibilities in Europe and around the world.
But ahead of a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry this Friday (31 January), the chancellor had much to say regarding the NSA surveillance affair.
She said the work of intelligence agencies is indispensable to protecting citizens, adding that in the "age of asymmetric threats", such as the terror attack on 11 September, it has "become more important than ever before".
Close cooperation with foreign partner agencies is of the utmost importance, she said. The US in particular should be thanked for providing precious information.
But she admitted views were still "far apart" in talks with the US over the authority given to intelligence agencies. The problem would not be solved in one visit, Merkel said.
What has been discovered over the past 6 months regarding the work of the US intelligence agencies, she said in front of the German parliament, "has raised fundamental questions".
'Can it be right...?'
Facing the Bundestag in Berlin on Wednesday, Merkel asked: "Can it be right that our closest allies, like the United States or Britain, access all imaginable data - arguing that it helps their own security and that of their partners?"
"Can it be right to act in this way just because others in the world do the same?", the chancellor asked, "Can it be right that it is not just about defending against terrorist threats but also about gaining an advantage over their allies, for example, in negotiations at G20 summits or UN sessions?"
"Our answer here", Merkel emphasised, "can only be: 'No, that cannot be right'."
An approach, in which the end justifies the means and everything that is technically do-able is carried out, injures the trust that "makes up the core of cooperation between friends and allied states".
"In the end there will not be more, but less security", the chancellor warned.
This is precisely what the German government is discussing with the United States, Merkel said, adding that she is convinced the allies will be able "to come up with principles for their cooperation; even in the area of preventing threats".
'No partnership and no friendship' under submissiveness
But the Bundestag's opposition is not convinced. Germany's Greens and the Left Party are advocating a tougher stance with regard to the US surveillance affair.
If Germany does not "cease its submissiveness toward the US, there will be no partnership and no friendship", said Gregor Gysi, chairman of the Left Party faction in the Bundestag, addressing Merkel. The Green Party's faction leader Anton Hofreiter similarly claimed Merkel had already surrendered to the "surveillance mania of the US".
Thomas Oppermann, chairman of the Social Democratic faction, offered the opposition parties a chance at cooperation on clearing up the NSA affair. "When millions are spied upon, then it is an issue that concerns the entire parliament." The Left Party and the Greens are hoping to apply for the appointment of a investigative committee.
TTIP negotiations should not become collateral damage
In Wednesday's speech, the chancellor said breaking off talks over a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) was something she firmly rejects as "not very helpful".
In her view, there is no other leverage "than the strength of our arguments" that "could force America to reconsider" their views on intelligence gathering.
At the same time, Merkel remained clear that "the German-American and the transatlantic partnership will remain of paramount importance" for Germany and Europe.
On Friday (31 January) Merkel will receive Secretary of State Kerry at the Federal Chancellory in Berlin. The opinion exchange following, will focus on transatlantic relations and current foreign policy issues, said government spokesman Steffen Seibert on Wednesday.