Spy v. Spy?: The coming push to create an EU spy agency to counteract the NSA

In an interview on Monday, a senior EU official, Commissioner of Justice Viviane Reding unveiled, in broad brushstrokes, a proposal to create a spy agency to counteract the NSA. She stated:

“‘What we need is to strengthen Europe in this field, so we can level the playing field with our US partners. I would therefore wish to use this occasion to negotiate an agreement on stronger secret service cooperation among the EU member states – so that we can speak with a strong common voice to the US,’” she told the Greek Naftemporiki newspaper on Monday.

“‘The NSA needs a counterweight. My long-term proposal would therefore be to set up a European Intelligence Service by 2020.’”

One purpose for creating such an agency could be to develop the EU’s information on the same third countries under surveillance by the NSA. Another purpose may be to spy on the United States, as suggested by the headline of at least one European paper. The UK’s The Telegraph headline reads: “Brussels demands ‘EU intelligence service’ to spy on US” (though the news story does not include any information supporting that angle). It is of course notable that the EU Justice Commissioner’s statement follows recent revelations of NSA spying on EU officials, most recently including an incident in a story by the New York Times over the past weekend.

According to Andrew Rettman, writing for the Euobserver.com, there are some reasons to doubt the support for the Justice Commissioner’s proposal:

An EU official told EUobserver that Reding spoke off the cuff in Naftemporiki and has not discussed her idea with fellow commissioners.

The official noted that creating a European Intelligence Service would need an EU treaty change and that Reding’s notion, if it is taken up, would have to be dealt with after EU elections in 2014.

That said, Rettman’s analysis also documents incipient cooperation among EU countries’ intelligence services, and suggests that the alignment of powerful states may be forming in favor of an EU intelligence service. With regard to the latter, Rettman writes:

David Cameron, the Prime Minister, will face a battle at European summit next month to fight off proposals, backed by France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain, for an embryonic intelligence service and EU military operations headquarters.

Indeed, the creation of a spy agency would go hand-in-hand with the proposals in a security strategy paper by EU Foreign Affairs Chief Catherine Ashton released in October. That document proposes the EU acquire and operate spy drones and surveillance satellites as part of a new military command and communication system.

This will not be the first attempt to create a “European CIA” within the EU. Following the Madrid train bombings in 2004, Austria and Belgium proposed the creation of such an agency. At the time, the leaders of Germany (Gerhard Schröder) and France (Jacques Chirac) called the proposal “premature” and left it for dead. The NSA revelations, however, have so far created a different alignment of interests.

Reacting to Monday’s statement by the Justice Commissioner, the appearance of hypocrisy was not lost on Geoffrey Van Orden, European Parliament Member and the Conservative European spokesman on defence. He remarked, “After a spate of mock outrage that the US had been spying on just about everyone, including the EU offices in Washington, the European Commission has now revealed its real concern – that it doesn’t have an EU intelligence Agency to match US capabilities.”

Indeed, it will be interesting to see how countries like Germany reconcile a push to develop such intelligence operations alongside the German government’s recent initiative at the United Nations to generate support for a resolution on surveillance and the right to privacy.

The EU will hold a summit on defense in December. Watch this space. 

About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.