European fury over US spying allegations

BRUSSELS, Belgium — European nations are reacting with consternation to revelations that US spy agencies are snooping on some of America's closest allies — and as the spat worsens, it's casting a shadow over plans for a major transatlantic trade deal.

"It's beyond our imagination that our friends in the United States consider the Europeans as enemies," commented Germany's Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger. "If the media reports are accurate, it is reminiscent of actions among enemies during the Cold War."

Her French counterpart Christiane Taubira said "it would be an act of unspeakable hostility if European institutions were indeed under the surveillance of the American secret service."

French President Francois Hollande put it even more bluntly: "We ask that this stop immediately," he told reporters Monday.

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German magazine Der Spiegel and British newspaper The Guardian claimed over the weekend that documents obtained from fugitive National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden indicated the US had bugged European Union offices and spied on European allies, including Germany, France, Italy and Greece.

EU headquarters and national authorities have demanded immediate clarification from Washington. Senior European officials have expressed concern that the level of spying calls into question the imminent opening of talks to create the world's largest free-trade zone.

"We can’t negotiate a large transatlantic market if there is any doubt that our partners are bugging the offices of European negotiators," EU Justice Commissioner Vivianne Reding said Sunday.

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Several European officials warned the alleged covert eavesdropping would give the US an unfair advantage over its negotiating partners.

The EU's chief negotiator Karel De Gucht, however, tried to downplay the impact on the negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or T-TIP, a major foreign policy priority for President Barack Obama which is designed to boost the $1 trillion-a-year EU-US trade relationship. 

Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, raised the espionage issue with US Secretary of State John Kerry on the sidelines of a Southeast Asian regional conference in Brunei. 

Questioned by journalists there, Kerry declined to comment on the specifics of the European media reports.

"Every country in the world that is engaged in international affairs of national security undertakes lots of activities to protect its national security and all kinds of information contributes to that," Kerry told a news conference. "And all I know is that is not unusual for lots of nations."