Why it’s time to end the special relationship

Ironing the Stars and Stripes I write this with a heavy heart. Like many of my generation I was brought up with the idea of America as a friend to Europe. In two World Wars the United States has come down on the side of freedom and democracy as against power and ambition. And the Marshall Plan was undoubtedly critical to the post WWII reconstruction of Europe, especially for the war-ravaged continent.

In 1976, America’s bicentennial year, I took four months leave of absence from work and rode coast-to-coast across the US by motorcycle. Starting in New York and finishing in San Francisco, in between I saw what I think of as the real America, the small towns and rural communities that make up the backbone of the country.

I returned from that visit with so many stories of people who had gone out of their way to help me, and with the conviction that ordinary Americans are among the most friendly and hospitable people on the planet.

Times have changed
But that was thirty-seven years ago, and in the intervening period it seems that much has changed. The friendly, open and reflective-speaking America that I remember from the 1970s appears to have become fearful, mistrusting and turned in on itself. The people who I thought of as having the most wonderful generosity of spirit seem to have lost that openness of character and become absorbed in doubt.

Some of the explanation has to be economic. The financial bankruptcy that has overtaken one of the country’s proudest cities, Detroit, or Motown to those who remember the music legends, is symbolic. Hard times have come upon America as they have on the rest of the world.

Without doubt the horrendous events of 2001 changed attitudes across the US. They also ushered in a short-sighted and unfortunate period of aggression abroad that has brought more enemies than friends. But since then, that once open-to-all country appears to have lost the ability to trust in the friends that it does have, and in friendships that were forged in many cases by ordinary Americans going about their everyday business.

Is this what ordinary Americans intended?
Today, I am continually reminded of how fearful America has become of the rest of the world. In multiple areas of recent EU policymaking, I see instances of US meddling in EU political affairs. Whether it is the Passenger Name Recognition (PNR) agreement (1), the SWIFT agreement (2), EU data-protection regulations (3), ACTA (4), or now the NSA and PRISM (5), there is all-too-clear evidence of US-lead attempts to block or water down European policy.

These are areas of decision-making that are fundamental to the relationship between the Union and its citizens. And yet they are ones that the US government or agencies lobbying on its behalf have attempted to influence or distort, to the point where they no longer represent the wishes of European voters.

It is hard to reconcile my memories of that generous people thirty-seven years ago with the actions now taking place in their name. Have those ordinary Americans become so distrustful that they now need to treat everybody else in the world as their enemy?

I do not believe so. Neither do I believe that they wished on their country its present reputation, as a militarist, domineering super-state that accepts friends provided only that they represent no economic threat and can be manipulated at will.

I do not accept they intended that America should become distrusted around the world, even by its one-time friends, because some arrogant members of Congress, supported by their intelligence friends, believe that spying on people outside the US is perfectly fine while spying on Americans is not (6).

Neither do I believe that they voted knowingly for a government that would export a concept of all-powerful government surveillance, spying and destabilisation capabilities as a model for the rest of the western world to copy.

My father’s generation in Britain, like that in America, spent their youth fighting for freedom from the very kind of government that such ills represent. How do I tell my elderly father, who was in that conflict, that the very ideals that he and his generation gave up so much for are being compromised in the present day, by people in government who seem unable to learn the lessons of recent history.

I cannot tell him. He would be horrified, and would refuse to accept it. And I don’t blame him. I am horrified also. The difference is that I know it to be true.

Actions speak louder than words
There is only one conclusion that I can come to. That it is time to end the special relationship with America. Grand statements about political freedoms are fine, but is by actions on the ground that governments are judged.

When I look upon the evidence from multitudes of stories about US spying on, surveillance of and interference with European political decisions, I see the actions of a hostile state. I see no difference in attitudes to Europe between the United States and, say, China.

If America is going to treat her friends as enemies, and subject European citizens to all the worst aspects of surveillance, data theft and outright interference in their lives, then it cannot be treated as a friend.

But what to do? To begin with, the EU has to effectively withdraw from all data sharing agreements with the United States. No doubt intelligence agencies in both the US and Europe will cry out against the dangers of such action.

But these dangers are as nothing compared to the reality of what is happening right now in the councils of Europe – a rising distrust of and wholesale withdrawal of support for American actions and foreign policies.

This rising distrust has been apparent among millions of European citizens for some time. But it is an attitude now reaching deep inside the European institutions, and gaining sway among thinkers and opinion formers who in the past would have been among America’s staunchest allies (7).

And it is putting not just data-exchange policies into question, but also undermining support for new measures such as the transatlantic free-trade partnership, something that had the potential to drive growth forward on both sides of the Atlantic.

Re-evaluate the relationship
If the EU fails to take concrete action, then it means that the Union and the national Parliaments that make up its backbone have become so thoroughly subjugated by USgov and its intelligence lobby that free will and the rights of European citizenry are lost. And if we have reached that stage, then the future of the EU itself as a home to stability and democracy is in doubt.

Withdrawing from data-sharing will not stop the activities of agencies like the NSA outright. The spying culture and legal agreements that have become embedded in internet communications around the world will take years to unwind.

But the present situation has to change. If European national Parliaments and the institutions of the European Union are to be taken seriously, they have to stop supplying data on their citizens wholesale to external powers.

Europe has to re-evaluate its relationship with the United States. If that relationship is to be determined by the power of the intelligence agencies, and ordinary people’s views are of no account, then it is a relationship that is neither friendly nor healthy. And relationships like that do not have a future.

© Philip Hunt, 2013.

Further reading

Human rights watchdog, the Council of Europe, has asked the UK to explain its recent actions in the Edward Snowden snooping affair: http://euobserver.com/justice/121174

EU data watchdog investigating Prism scandal to see if EU privacy rules have been breached by secret US surveillance programmes: http://euobserver.com/justice/121153

Merkel rival demands halt of EU-US talks amid revelations Washington is spying on European allies: http://euobserver.com/political/121203

(1) European Parliament votes for latest PNR agreement against advice: http://www.nujcec.org/brussels/index.php/latest-news/curr_evts/european-parliament-votes-for-latest-pnr-agreement-against-advice/
(2) EU/US SWIFT agreement not respecting data protection safeguards: http://www.nujcec.org/brussels/index.php/latest-news/past_evts/euus-swift-agreement-not-respecting-data-protection-safeguards/
(3) EU data protection: http://www.euractiv.com/infosociety/eu-watchdog-warns-lobbyists-parl-news-528128, NSA leaks show how US is bugging its European allies: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/30/nsa-leaks-us-bugging-european-allies/, US officials lobby to influence EU policy: http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2013/01/proposed-eu-data-protection-reform-could-start-a-trade-war-us-official-says/
(4) European Parliament committees reject ACTA: https://www.shoeman.eu/ep-committees-reject-acta/
(5) European Parliament today debates US government surveillance – but the cancer continues to grow: https://www.shoeman.eu/ep-debates-us-gov-surveillce/
(6) FISA – US free to grab EU data on American clouds: http://euobserver.com/justice/118857
(7) Commissioner Reding letter to US Attorney General: http://www.statewatch.org/news/2013/jun/eu-usa-reding-ag.letter.pdf, The Brussels Privacy Declaration: https://www.privacyinternational.org/blog/the-brussels-privacy-declaration

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