THE BLOG

Four-Letter Diplomacy and European Provincialism

13/02/2014 09:58 GMT | Updated 14/04/2014 10:59 BST

Victoria Nuland's rather undiplomatic statement about the European Union's role in Ukraine last week was not well received on this side of the Atlantic. Angela Merkel, for instance, deemed it "totally unacceptable". But however uncharming Nuland's choice of words might have been, she actually just summed up the official US foreign policy line towards Europe in three words: Fuck the EU.

Jen Psaki, spokesperson of the US State Department called Russia's alleged role in the bugging of Ms Nuland a "new low in Russian tradecraft". Considering the recent and ongoing revelations about the NSA's practices, this is not without irony. Over the last years it has transpired that the United States have bugged European citizens, politicians and corporations on a previously unimaginable scale. In doing so, it has breached the privacy of millions of European citizens, conducted hostile acts towards allied governments and harmed the EU's political and economic interests. And while the European furor about Edward Snowden's revelations mainly concentrated on the NSA's invasion of citizens' personal privacy, US surveillance also affects EU citizens in other, less direct ways.

Whenever EU diplomats and politicians walk into transatlantic negotiations, their US counterparts may already know the European negotiation strategy since EU premises have been bugged globally. This would give the American side a clear advantage, enabling US negotiators to push their will through at the cost of the EU and its citizens. The most pressing example is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which if negotiated in an unfavourable way risks disproportionately privileging US industries at the EU's expense and threating European consumer protection rules.

Moreover, when European corporations compete with American ones for major foreign contracts, the latter might have an insight into the former's tenders. And if EU firms develop technologies the US deems strategically valuable, intercepted information about them might well be forwarded to US competitors. "There's no question that the US is engaged in economic spying," said Edward Snowden in an interview with the German public broadcaster NDR. "If there's information at Siemens that they think would be beneficial to the national interests, not the national security of the United States, they'll go after that information and they'll take it."

Evidence of US industrial espionage has already been around for more than a decade. A 2001 report by the European Parliament on the Echelon spy network, a signals intelligence network combining the NSA with four other services (including the British GCHQ), stated that its major purpose is the interception of commercial and private communication. While the report stopped short of making accusations, it made clear that the system is well suited for industrial espionage. It also provided an extensive list of cases in which US agencies have been accused of spying on EU corporations and warned them to protect themselves accordingly.

In spite of these revelations, the European leaders have not even succeeded in getting some sort of apology from the United States, let alone a credible promise to refrain from these activities in the future. The US gets away with damaging the EU, which is not only supposedly closely allied but also superior both in population and economic power, because the Union is not using its combined power to speak with one single strong voice.

It speaks with 29 voices instead. Four of them are heard but not taken very seriously in Washington (UK, Germany, France and the EU Commission), a further three are heard occasionally but not taken serious at all (Italy, Poland and Spain) and the remaining 22 voices create an obscure background noise that US policy makers see as a nuisance at most. Individually, all EU member states share the fate of becoming relatively irrelevant in a world increasingly dominated by the US and China as well as emerging actors such as Brazil or India. These states gratefully exploit the Union's leaders' inability and unwillingness to create a real common foreign policy.

The United States is deliberately sidelining the EU as a partner. After being appointed Secretary of State, John Kerry's first trip to Europe included stops in four EU member states but none in Brussels. A symbolic step that tells a lot about the American approach. The US prefers to talk directly to the EU member states and to make bilateral deals favourable to the respective state in the short term but undermining the EU's and its members' interest and their ability to enforce them in the long run.

This highly effective 'divide and rule' strategy explains European leaders' reactions to the NSA revelations. Although there was outrage, each individual state fears to loose its own special relationship with the United States. Accordingly, the strongest wording they could unite on following the revelation that various European leaders' cellphones had been monitored, was to declare that "a lack of trust could prejudice the necessary cooperation in the field of intelligence gathering". Not exactly impressive compared to the American reaction following the 2010 exposure of the comparably harmless Russian spy ring around Anna Chapman.

It is not totally unacceptable that a senior US diplomat uses a private call to express her view on the EU with four letters. What is unacceptable, however, is that her view reflects the United States line on Europe. And the most unacceptable thing is that the EU's leaders' shortsighted provincialism strongly encourages this line. Rather than calling it unacceptable, Merkel and her EU colleagues should get their act together and make sure that this line actually becomes totally unacceptable.