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Transatlantic relations

Opinion: Transatlantic renaissance postponed

The rebuilding of trust between Europe and the US after the NSA revelations did not happen in Munich. Europeans should now take a different path to push Washington into reforming the NSA, says DW's Michael Knigge.

At its core the Munich Security Conference is a transatlantic venue for political dialogue and the exchange of ideas. Even though the conference has widened its geographical focus dramatically over the years, that fact still holds true 50 years after its inception.

So what could be a better forum to address head-on the transatlantic rift that has developed from the fallout of the NSA disclosures? Many German observers, in particular, had hoped that this would be the place where Berlin would receive the clear signal it has repeatedly demanded from Washington ever since it was revealed that the NSA was spying on German citizens and even Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone.

They were disappointed. To be sure, with secretaries of state and defense John Kerry and Chuck Hagel and a large congressional delegation, the US sent political heavyweights to Munich. But the admirable size of its delegation was, unfortunately, not matched by the content of its two most important members.

In their remarks, Kerry and Hagel skirted the NSA debate almost completely. Neither mentioned the spy agency once. Kerry evoked a "transatlantic renaissance" only then to merely hint at the most pernicious issue burdening the relationship.

He stated that President Barack Obama ordered a review of signals intelligence practices and that US democracy has always been good at fixing what has needed to be fixed. While the official apology that some were hoping for was never in the cards, the deep transatlantic relationship that both Kerry and Hagel referred to repeatedly in their remarks deserved better than it got.

For Europeans concerned about US mass surveillance the pronounced silence by Kerry during his trip to Munich and Berlin means two things. First, the chances for a comprehensive reform of the NSA by the Obama administration are slim to none. The message Kerry sent to his European counterparts was, "Let's move on, now we understand your concerns and will work this out to together." This also means that the pet project of the German government - a legally binding bilateral no-spy agreement - is all but dead.

Second, given that the Obama administration appears unlikely to do much more on the issue anytime soon, Europeans should chart a different course.

Instead of focusing on the White House, Europe should look to Congress. Any meaningful NSA reform will most likely not come from the Obama administration but from US lawmakers. There is now a broad coalition of Republicans and Democrats in Congress who are pushing to seriously curb the NSA's activities by law, for instance via the Freedom Act.

European officials and lawmakers should reach out to their counterparts in the United States and support and consult them in their work. What's more, Europeans need to keep the public debate over the balance of intelligence and privacy alive as this keeps up the pressure on US-based Internet companies to also push Congress for real NSA reform if only out of mere economic self-interest.

While news of a transatlantic renaissance is premature, Europeans now should not sit back and mope about the missing messages of remorse on the issue that is so vexing to them. Instead they should take their case to US lawmakers, the representatives of the American people. That's where they will find more open ears than many may think.

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