Germany eyes overhauled US partnership in talks on spy row

Kate Millar
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier addresses a press conference in Berlin on June 13, 2014
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German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier addresses a press conference in Berlin on June 13, 2014 (AFP Photo/John Macdougall)

Berlin (AFP) - Germany's foreign minister said Friday he would urge a revived US partnership based on "trust and mutual respect" in talks with his American counterpart after Berlin's expulsion of a CIA station chief in a spying row.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he would tackle the diplomatic fallout from the latest twist in a more than year-long rift with the US over surveillance when he meets US Secretary of State John Kerry for weekend talks on Iran.

Germany's shock move Thursday to kick out the US embassy intelligence chief followed the emergence within days of two alleged US spying cases, re-igniting German fury after last year's NSA scandal.

Analysts said the highly unusual move, which came after the US ambassador was twice called in for talks, marked a watershed in German-US ties, with an openly rattled Berlin now ready to publicly take a stand against its NATO ally.

"The expulsion is seen in the US as a symbolic action by Germany," Hans Kundnani, research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told AFP.

"Still, it will affect the German-US relationship because it is a quite dramatic step to publicly ask the CIA station chief to leave."

German newspapers applauded the expulsion as a long overdue act of protest, with the conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung saying Chancellor Angela Merkel was not President Barack Obama's "poodle".

Steinmeier said Germany's partnership with the United States was vital and, with escalating violence in hotspots such as Ukraine and the Middle East, transatlantic cooperation was needed more than ever.

But he cautioned that it must be based "not just on trust" but also "on mutual respect".

"We want to revive our partnership and friendship on an honest basis. In any case, we're ready for that," he told reporters.

That would be his message, he said, when he and Kerry attend international talks in Vienna this weekend on Iran's nuclear programme.

- 'Breach of trust' -

Steinmeier made no attempt to play down the expulsion, which he termed "the right decision, a necessary step and an appropriate reaction to the breach of trust".

"Drawing consequences was unavoidable," he said.

Washington has refused so far to break its silence on the spat with Europe's biggest economy, which has launched two probes in the last week into suspected US spying.

German police this week searched the Berlin-area home and office of a man who, local media reported, is a German defence ministry employee accused of passing secrets to the United States.

It followed news last Friday that a 31-year-old German BND foreign intelligence service operative had been arrested on suspicion of having sold over 200 documents to the CIA.

The cases have compounded anger at Washington's perceived lacklustre response to German concern over fugitive intelligence contractor Edward Snowden's revelations last year of widespread National Security Agency (NSA) snooping, including on Merkel's phone.

Germany has sought a "no spying" pact with Washington similar to US agreements with Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, but the US government balked at a deal that could set a precedent for others.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Thursday that any "comment on any reported intelligence acts would put at risk US assets, US personnel and United States national security."

Washington was speaking to Berlin through diplomatic, intelligence and law enforcement channels, he said.

Henning Riecke, an expert in transatlantic relations at the German Council on Foreign Relations, described the crisis as "very grave" but said he did not foresee an escalating slugfest despite a loss of trust weighing on ties.

"Overall it'll be more difficult to advance cooperation with the Americans," he said.

Several economists sounded the alarm over already bogged-down negotiations for a US-EU free trade accord.

"The present conflict imperils the TTIP agreement even more than it already is," Handelsblatt business daily quoted the president of the DIW economic think tank Marcel Fratzscher as saying.

Intelligence gathering is not likely to fundamentally change as a result, Kundnani predicted but added that, paradoxically, Berlin could be targeted more because "it's now a more difficult partner".

The liberal daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung said ex-chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's "No" to the Iraq war 12 years ago was a "first step" in signalling independence towards the US.

"Now comes the next step," it said. "It was overdue."