Europe's reaction to the Snowden revelations: Indifference, resignation and complete bewilderment

Wissen | Hintergrund

How did Europe react to Edward Snowden's revelations on how the NSA and its partners are monitoring global communications? To understand this, heise online asked journalists all over the continent for their perspective. Largely different viewpoints emerged.

Vergrößern The countries covered Bild: The_Emirr

When Edward Snowden went public in 2013, declaring that he had proof for a gigantic surveillance system maintained by the NSA and its partners, it soon became clear that he hadn't exaggerated. Western intelligence agencies have established a system of total surveillance, allegedly in the national interest of their citizens. Since then, the story has dominated the headlines, not only on heise online, as "the NSA scandal". The debate, however, has been limited almost exclusively to within the borders of nation states.

Even in today's united Europe, there is almost no cross-border discourse. This is why heise online asked journalists from all over Europe to tell us how their countries are dealing with the NSA revelations. A mixed picture has emerged from this: While some countries like the Netherlands or Sweden debated the reports intensely, others weren't impressed. In France, for example, people seemed little surprised, whereas in Great Britain the majority refuses to discuss the surveillance. All these countries have only on thing in common: There were almost no consequences after the extend of NSA spying was revealed.

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In Germany, the Snowden revelations received a lot of attention from the very beginning, with the media documenting them in full detail. In response, a relatively small protest movement came into being. Public interest stayed high with every new article, but a fatalistic attitude quickly surfaced among readers. Still, most media outlets kept on the ball and continued to report the revelations.

In politics, however, only the parliamentary opposition demanded any kind of reaction from the government at all. Political leaders seemed eager to declare the affair finished, right until the very moment when the surveillance of Chancellor Merkel was made public. A brief but very loud outcry followed, only to be again silenced by those in charge. This was exacerbated when the grand coalition was formed.

Journalists from some countries report that Edward Snowden's revelations hit home like a bomb. These exact words were used by Bart Olmer from the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf. In his country, an intense debate started in public, in the media and the within parliament. This debate was also concerned with the role of the Dutch intelligence agency AIVD (Algemene Inlichtingen- en Veiligheidsdienst), which monitors citizens almost at the same level as the NSA. Olmer's newspaper had revealed several years ago, for example, that AIVD was spying on Second Life.

In Sweden on the other hand, the media has reported the story intensively, but public interest stayed low. This is according to Tobias Brandel from the daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. The situation presents a sharp contrast to what had transpired in 2008/09, when massive protests were levelled against an initiative to expand the authority of the country's intelligence service FRA (Försvarets radioanstalt). A little while later, the Swedish Piratpartiet (Pirate Party) got propelled into the European Parliament by the bow wave of the protests, securing more than seven per cent of votes. Current polls suggest they hold less than two per cent.

Sanna Torén Björling, Washington-based US correspondent for daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter, says the lively interest of Swedish media could be explained with Sweden's long history of openness and transparency. Many of her fellow journalists had argued that Edward Snowden should not be treated as a traitor and that to persecute whistle-blowers like him would mean endangering democracy itself.

Intense coverage of the story also happened in Estonia, reports Hans Lõugas from the daily newspaper Eesti Päevaleht. After the initial interest, a certain saturation was reached, however. This, he says, was partly the fault of the politicians, who didn't react to the revelations or only reaffirmed the close partnership with the USA. The only action that was taken was to subject the very popular and advanced e-government infrastructure of the country to a risk analysis; enhanced security measures were promised as a result.

Apart from that, the Estonians seem to have accepted the surveillance as an inevitable result of the digitalisation of society. Additionally, their view of technology has changed, writes Lõugas. In the past, the Estonians have been proud of Skype and its Estonian roots, but this changed as the software was acquired by Microsoft, only to now be monitored by the US government.

In Italy, the revelations are known as "Datagate", writes Simone Cosimi, freelance journalist for Repubblica.it, Wired.it and VanityFair.it. In the beginning, this dominated the headlines, but the media later seemed to lack the ability to find new angles on the story. And Italian politicians – already part of a system which isn't exactly famed for its transparency – reacted very cautious. It seemed like the Italian public felt affirmed in their mistrust in American intelligence agencies. In this context, Cosimi points at the abduction of Abu Omar by the CIA or the still unresolved downing of Itavia Flight 870. In addition, Italians connect the US to the murder of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978.

In Austria's media, the Snowden story was covered at length, explains Markus Sulzbacher of the daily Der Standard. But it didn't seem like this changed the popular belief that the surveillance can't be stopped. Part of this was because Austrian politics reacted strangely, according to Sulzbacher. Although the country is officially neutral, its army (Bundesheer) cooperates closely with the NSA. Now the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BVT) is investigating the so-called "NSA villa", a suspected surveillance station in Vienna – but for Sulzbacher it's clear who will prevail: the investigations won't succeed.

At least it seems clear what the intelligence agencies are after in Austria, says Erich Moechel, investigative reporter for public broadcaster ORF. Due to the many international organisations present in Vienna, there is a remarkable amount of diplomats in the city – more than 17,000. That is why it seems obvious that units like the NSA's Tailored Access Operations are stationed there; the arsenal they use in their work against high value targets having been revealed by Jacob Appelbaum. At the same time, due to the country's geographic location, it seems unlikely to Moechel that the Americans are able to grab bulk data from fibre cables within its borders.

Vergrößern The DGSE logo Bild: Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure

In France, the most common reaction seemed to be "didn't we know this already?", writes Lucie Ronfaut from Le Figaro. People do not agree with the extend of the spying, but resistance hasn't been large enough to support the creation of a protest movement. And politicians didn't really react to the reports until news broke that the NSA also spied on French diplomats, says Le Monde's Martin Untersinger. At this point, the US ambassador was summoned, a very unusual step – one that was also taken in Germany.

But in this context, it should be mentioned that the French foreign intelligence agency DGSE (Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure) works very closely with the NSA. It has also created its own surveillance infrastructure to collect large amounts of internet data. In France the NSA is therefore more likely to be copied than criticised. It also doesn't help that French members of parliament generally have very poor technical knowledge, adds Untersinger.

The story was never as big in Spain as it was in other countries, said Joseba Elola from El País. Politicians didn't really care or even demand consequences. When Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy visited the USA in January 2014, he talked to President Obama about surveillance, but didn't raise any concerns. Afterwards, he told journalists that the explanations of the US government had sufficed. Even when it was revealed that the NSA collects massive amounts of data on telephone calls, there were only reserved reactions and no protests at all.

Another country where the revelations didn't spark a lot of interest is Romania, says Laura Ciobanu from the daily newspaper Evenimentul zilei. The media mostly reported on the Snowden revelations when the surveillance of a celebrity like Angela Merkel was made public, but the internal political problems always were more important. As inhabitants of a former communist society, many seemed to have assumed that, of course, they were still being spied upon. Stupidly, as Ciobanu adds. In any case, this is probably the reason for the lack of real surprise in the country. Snowden's own fortune had created a stir in the beginning, but mostly only because of the conflict between the USA and Russia.

Gintaras Radauskas, vice-editor of the foreign news desk of Lithuania's biggest daily newspaper, Lietuvos Rytas, even raises doubts in validity of the Snowden story. The media in his country reported on the revelations, naturally, but he doesn't think they were surprising. Instead, he poses the question why nobody talks about the immense surveillance apparatus established by the French, the Russians or the Chinese. Some in his country even think that Snowden is cooperating with the Kremlin. After all, to them, it seems suspicious that his revelations serve the interests of the Russians. Radauskas plays down the collection of metadata by intelligence agencies – for example with PRISM. At leasts it's not about message contents, he says. According to him, the voice of reason is being ignored "among the fear mongering of populists" – in Lithuania as almost everywhere else.

Vergrößern In Germany "Yes we Scan" was crowned Headline of the Year Bild: crackajack.de

Switzerland usually reacts less hysterical and remains more reserved than it's bigger neighbour Germany. This was obvious once again in the Snowden case, writes Eric Gujer, head of the foreign policy department at Neue Zürcher Zeitung. This explains why the discussion in his country has been less intense, he says. Switzerland also has very different relations with the United States. In Germany, he sees either excessive friendship or exaggerated criticism towards the former occupying power. But for Switzerland, the United States are only one state amongst many and so the shock about the surveillance has been less extreme. The Swiss didn't feel as betrayed. Gujer speculates that another factor for the lesser relevance of the story in his country could be that the Swiss intelligence agency NDB (Nachrichtendienst des Bundes) doesn't cooperate with the NSA – his country didn't even get its own codename in the Snowden documents.

It wasn't possible to get an on-the-record press opinion on the Snowden revelations from the United Kingdom. But in a way, this fits the picture on how the country has handled the surveillance scandal. Great Britain's governmental signals intelligence agency GCHQ is a very close ally to the NSA. It follows, then, that the country was at the centre of attention right from the start. The extent of the cooperation of the two agencies and much more was revealed by the British daily newspaper The Guardian, thanks to journalist and Snowden-confidant Glen Greenwald. But aside from the coverage in The Guardian, the topic appeared noticeably little in the British media. Instead of discussing the message, the messenger himself was debated. Because of its reporting, The Guardian was attacked massively by Prime Minister Cameron. So harshly, in fact, that concerns over the freedom of the press in the UK were raised in other countries. There was also little resistance from the public, probably because the British are already accustomed to a kind of total surveillance, thanks to the many cameras covering public spaces everywhere. (fab)

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