What Europe’s response to Obama on the NSA really means

europe-usa-eu-flags.preview_0By Simon Davies

The European Commission has published a response to President Obama’s statement on the NSA. Many people are confused by this communique. They can’t understand why Europe is being so supportive in response to what – in the non-US domain – is little more than a set of aspirational clauses. Well, the truth is, the EC isn’t being supportive. Strip back the diplomatic language and here’s what they are really saying:

European Commission


Brussels, 17 January 2014

Statement by European Commission

Spokeswoman on U.S. President Obama’s remarks on the review of U.S. intelligence programmes


The European Commission welcomes President Obama’s remarks and presidential directive on the review of U.S. intelligence programmes. We in particular welcome the President’s willingness to begin to address wide-spread concerns related to the large-scale data collection by the NSA, concerns which are shared by many European citizens.

In this context “welcomes” comes closer to a noun than a verb. “Welcomes” is the diplomatic expression of recognition of the fact of something, rather than the sort of “welcomes” that you give a long lost aunt or a domestic cat that just came home after three days. It recognises only that an event has occurred.

“Willingness to begin to address…” is a fascinating phrase. First, “willingness” is a passive adjective, denoting motivation rather than outcome. In diplomatic circles willingness is not a positive accolade. “Begin to address” is equally loaded, and in the political sense means that the negotiation has been signalled, though no concrete outcome has been forthcoming.

President Obama’s remarks and action show that the legitimate concerns expressed by the EU have been listened to by our U.S. partner and that the intensive transatlantic dialogue on these issues has been genuine and is beginning to produce results.

“Listened to”, as well as being grammatically dodgy, is the object of this sentence and therefore indicates words rather than results (despite the word “action” which was probably leveraged in a last-minute political negotiation).

As the European Commission stated on 27 November 2013 (IP/13/1166), trust in EU-U.S. data flows has been affected by revelations on these intelligence programmes and needs to be rebuilt. In recognising the need for action, President Obama has taken important steps towards rebuilding that trust.

Note the use of the word “recognising” rather than “initiating”.

We particularly welcome the willingness of President Obama to extend safeguards currently available to U.S. citizens as regards data collection for national security purposes to non U.S.-citizens. We will now explore the full implications of this commitment.

There’s that word willingness again. And the last sentence is a killer. It essentially says we don’t have a clue what you mean, and any superficial benefits are being ignored.

The President’s remarks also open the way for discussion between the EU and the U.S. on a more efficient use of mutual legal assistance treaties and on the data protection norms that should apply to the use of big data.

In other words, you’ve opened a Pandora’s box.

The President’s announcements represent the start of an important process to address EU concerns and we look forward to further action by the U.S. in this regard.

Refer back to the commencement process. Nothing has been achieved and nothing has been promised, but diplomatically acceptable intentions have been made.

A number of questions still remain open and will need to be addressed in detail. We will therefore continue our dialogue with the U.S., along the lines set in the Commission’s communication of 27 November 2013 on “Rebuilding Trust in EU-US Data Flows”, which includes, in particular:

An improvement of the Safe Harbour scheme that would address security issues in a way that strengthens trust in transatlantic data transfers to the U.S. in the commercial sector.

The Safe Harbour scheme is on the rocks.

The swift conclusion of an umbrella agreement on data protection in the area of law enforcement that will guarantee enforceable rights for EU citizens, including judicial redress for EU citizens not resident in the U.S..

We’ll need to go back to the drawing board on this. Discussions have dragged on far too long and you are the root cause of the problem.