Brussels, 01 April 2014. The European Parliament elections in May 2014 are important. The MEPs that we elect will influence how or whether Europe climbs out of the recession that is manifest across the region. But what will they do about our private lives?
For some of us, the European Parliament has the chance with its new intake of Members to do something fundamental about citizens’ rights in Europe. They can determine the ability to stand up on the world stage and assert European rights, without having to give way to the views of other countries no matter how powerful.
Europe’s new MEPs can decide how to balance the region’s security needs against the rights, human and social, of its citizens, a balancing act that is likely to become ever more difficult as mass surveillance becomes easier and threatens the loss of privacy worldwide.
For me, Europe’s last Parliament was tested on its commitment to civic rights with the Snowden case – and found wanting. The Brussels branch of the National Union of Journalists (of which I am a member) issued a call to the Presidents of all the European parliamentary parties, including the Parliament’s President, asking them to support European asylum status for Edward Snowden.
We did this because some of us see Edward Snowden as something of a hero; because his action enabled the truth about the real extent of government spying on ordinary citizens to be exposed in the world’s media. And also because the branch has a history of standing up for important whistleblowers since 2002 (when we launched whistleblower and ex-Commission Chief Accountant Marta Andreasen to the press).
Snowden’s decision to blow the whistle on the activities of the NSA and its European equivalents forced the US government to come clean on the real extent of its spying on people. As a consequence, US President Obama has promised a major rethink of government policy on surveillance.
Meanwhile, in Europe …
From the national governments in Europe, by contrast, nothing (with the honourable exception of Luxembourg). In the European Parliament, the LIBE (civil liberties) committee killed an amendment to its recent report on mass surveillance that would have offered Edward Snowden the option of asylum in Europe. Lobbied heavily by the US administration and several European governments, the committee not only threw out the amendment, but also excised any mention of the name Edward Snowden from the report.
Which is ironic considering that it was Snowden’s actions that made possible this very report, numerous committees of inquiry into government surveillance in both the US and Europe, and corporate moves (e.g. Google, Microsoft) to improve the security of the services they offer to the public.
With the power of the security services to modify public policy on both sides of the Atlantic well demonstrated, European citizens now wait to see the same rethink on government surveillance as has been shown by the US. As well as the same acknowledgement that much official surveillance has been mistaken – a sop for the overblown budgets that have characterised security-service activities since 2001.
To date however, European governments have followed the lead set for them by their own official agencies, hush it up and pretend it never happened. But surveillance has happened and is still happening. We live in the post-Snowden era – and no amount of pretence will make it go away.
Some say that MEPs are merely creatures that tamely follow the dictates of their national governments. But they are put into office directly by you, the European electorate. So if you want to improve Europe’s ability to stand up for itself, and for its citizens rather than nameless officials and corporate elites, it is up to you to do something about it.
Questions for your next MEP
If you believe in the rights of European citizens, if you think that personal privacy is worth protecting, if you think that private life is more important than giving ever more data on your behaviour to commercial companies, ask your prospective MEP the following questions before you vote.
My questions for your prospective MEP are:
- What rights to protection from government surveillance do European citizens have?
- Should EU countries retain data on the activities of ordinary European citizens? If so, how?
- Should data on the travel of European citizens be given to other countries? If so, who has access?
- Should governments be legally obliged to notify citizens if they are placed on a watch list?
- Do you know what your country’s government spends on the security services?
- Should security-service budgets be hidden or transparent?
Who should the security services be accountable to?
- If some European citizens are to be monitored, who decides, and how can individuals question that surveillance in Europe?
Get your candidate to answer these questions before you vote for him/her – the answers could be enlightening.
© Philip Hunt, 2014.