“A true friend doesn’t go behind your back.”

26.10.2013 - Interview

Harald Leibrecht, Coordinator of Transatlantic Cooperation at the Federal Foreign Office, on the state of German-American relations. Published in Die Welt on 26 October 2013.


Mr Leibrecht, how much do you enjoy your work these days?

In the light of the eavesdropping affair I’m not exactly over the moon about it. It is hurtful. We were under the impression that relations with the United States had improved again. Now our trust has been shaken.

Have you discussed the alleged monitoring of Angela Merkel’s mobile phone with the American side?

I visited the United States again recently and had talks with many people which also focused on the NSA surveillance issues. I now intend to seize every opportunity to say to the Americans in no uncertain terms that these incidents are unacceptable. The summoning of the US ambassador by the Federal Foreign Minister is also a clear sign that we no longer intend to beat about the bush.

Are you afraid the Americans might be eavesdropping on you as well?

I am neither the Chancellor nor the Foreign Minister. We want to be able to be sure that our friends aren’t spying on us.

What does the new situation mean for the German-American relationship?

America remains our most important ally outside the European Union. Nonetheless, this affair overshadows our talks both on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and on other agreements concerning data transfer. That is why these issues must be swiftly resolved and the United States Government must restore our confidence.

How would you define friendship?

If you can trust one another implicitly, that is friendship. A true friend doesn’t go behind your back. A friend will always treat information confidentially. A firm foundation of trust with the United States is crucial to our cooperation. Now the basis of our friendship has been shaken.

Is the United States still the friend it used to be?

The United States is our friend. In the international arena we present a strong united front. Yet at the moment we are not sure how important Europe and Germany are to America.

So we can no longer speak of an unconditional friendship.

There is no longer anything we can take for granted about the German-American friendship. Now the main thing for us all to do is to speak plainly with one another.

How does Germany benefit from a good relationship with the United States?

We share many common values and have much to thank the United States for. It is a close ally in foreign policy and security issues. It is an extremely important trade partner. That is why we want to continue to negotiate on the free-trade agreement, which is in our own interests.

Will the talks with the United States on the agreement now be held within an altered framework?

Now we will be stepping very carefully in negotiations on the release of data. But I would advise against letting this issue jeopardise the negotiations entirely.

Would we be wrong in thinking that the Americans are not unduly bothered about the outcry in Europe with regard to the surveillance?

In summer you could have gained this impression. Since then the number of people in the United States who are critical of their government’s behaviour has been growing. The policy has received particularly harsh criticism from the universities. I expect the United States Government to reassess the incidents. The damage is out of all proportion to the benefits.

Are you grateful to the former United States intelligence contractor Edward Snowden for the fact that we are now better informed of US practices?

We now see many things in a different light. I can’t judge the extent to which that has to do with Mr Snowden.

Does Snowden deserve to be given asylum in Germany?

Any political fugitive can apply for asylum in Germany. I presume that the Federal Government will continue to follow the case. But to say any more would be mere speculation. Mr Snowden has decided to stay in Russia for the time being.

Interview: Karsten Kammholz. Reproduced by kind permission of Die Welt.

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