Widespread U.S. spying on German Internet and mobile-phone users is angering voters. Angela Merkel doesn’t seem to take the debate seriously. It’s unclear what she knew about possible German involvement. Her battered credibility could have electoral consequences.
The man who can spoil Angela Merkel’s electoral victory on Sept. 22 isn’t her hapless Social Democratic challenger Peer Steinbrueck but Edward Snowden. The U.S. whistleblower’s revelations have turned into a major campaign issue in Germany, and Merkel has utterly mishandled the debate. Voters still don’t know what she knew, when she knew it, and they are still waiting to find out about the German government’s exact involvement in the spying.
On top of this, the news that the NSA could be monitoring half a billion German phone calls and emails every month will have an impact on business. Fear of American business espionage has also dampened German companies’ appetite for cloud computing. Trust in the confidentiality of private data has been badly shaken in a country where privacy is paramount. Germany’s dreadful past experiences with the Gestapo or the Stasi have left it with a deeply-rooted mistrust of secret services in general. CCTV surveillance of public places and bars, for example – the norm in Britain – has been met with fierce opposition, and remains the exception rather than the rule.
In the early 1980s, a census was delayed for years because the attached questionnaire was perceived as too intrusive. That fuelled the rise of the Green party and led the constitutional court to create the “right to informational self-determination”.
Angela Merkel’s credibility is on the line. Media reports have suggested that German intelligence services may have actively collaborated with their U.S. counterparts in gathering intelligence. Should that be confirmed, it would run dangerously close to violating the constitution.
The German chancellor clearly underestimated the political consequences of the Snowden leaks. Her government issued only lukewarm criticism and rushed to turn down Snowden’s asylum request.
The chancellor isn’t in danger of losing her job in September, but she may not get to choose who she will govern with. Most opinion polls see her still ahead, although her current coalition’s lead has shrunken to 2 small percentage points.
Merkel can still regain the upper hand by launching an independent and thorough public investigation into the spying scandal, and suggest ways – technical or legal – to avoid a repeat. But so far she seems to be waiting for the storm to pass.
This article was initially published as a Reuters Breakingviews comment on 25 July 2013.