The Idiot’s Guide to Snooping on Europe


American spies have been taking it on the chin from European Union officials since it was disclosed in the files leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that U.S. secret agents were eavesdropping on their conversations in Brussels, New York, and Washington, D.C. While spying on your most powerful allies just before the start of transatlantic trade talks may not exactly be neighborly behavior, spare a thought for all those poor NSA snoops trying to translate EU gobbledygook into intelligible English or make sense of the Byzantine workings of the world’s richest trade club. Out of sympathy for our friends at the NSA, Foreign Policy asked our man in Brussels to gin up an A-Z guide to the European Union for U.S. spooks.

A: Ashton, Catherine
The Right Honourable Baroness Ashton of Upholland was appointed as the EU’s first foreign policy chief — or High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy in Brussels jargon — in 2009, despite the fact that she had virtually no foreign-policy experience and had never been elected to public office. Foreign-policy wonks had low expectations of Ashton when she took up the post — and few have been disappointed.

B: Berlaymont
The star-shaped Brussels headquarters of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm. While renovation works were taking place after asbestos was discovered in the Berlaymont in the 1990s, this reporter found a stack of detailed architects’ plans of the building in a garbage container in the car park of the International Press Center. (No comment as to what this reporter was doing rummaging around in the trash.) Fingers were pointed and action was pledged. But a week later, another pile of plans was dumped in the same trash can. This is the kind of high-level security America’s secret agents are up against.

C: Council of the European Union
Represents the naked national interests of the Union’s 28 member states. Not to be confused with the Council of Europe (Strasbourg-based, non-EU body dealing with town-twinning and telling Russia off) or the European Council (quarterly meetings of EU leaders that have become almost monthly since the financial crisis.)

D: De Gucht, Karel
You can forget the names of most of the 28 European Commissioners, who are like cabinet ministers minus the name recognition, but it’s worth remembering this guy. De Gucht — pronounce it like you’re trying to cough up something nasty — is the Belgian former foreign minister in charge of EU trade talks. And as they like to repeat inside the Brussels beltway, the EU may be a political dwarf but it’s an economic giant.

E: Enlargement
If you have a sophisticated spam filter, de-flag this word because it has nothing to do with the junk mail you may be used to. It is simply EU jargon for increasing the number of members it has — from six when the bloc was founded in 1957 to 28 as of July 1 when Croatia joined. The rapid expansion of the EU in the last decade has resulted in “enlargement fatigue” — both inside the bloc and in the countries queuing up to join. The Turks are tired of waiting after half a century in the EU’s ante-chamber and Croats were so underwhelmed at the prospect of joining that only 20 percent of them bothered to vote in the first elections to the European Parliament in April.

F: France
The most compassionate, most central, and least arrogant European country — at least according to the French. France used to be known as the “motor” of EU integration, but these days the engine is more VW than Citroen. Led by President François Hollande, a self-confessed “Mr. Normal.” For once, a politician is not lying.

G: Greece
Europe’s basket case. Think Alabama or Mississippi but with better food and thinner people. But forget the German stereotype of Greeks as lazy scroungers. OECD figures show Greeks work harder than any European nation.

H: Horsemeat
Known as “beef” in Europe. The French and Belgians love eating this stuff. The Brits, however, don’t appreciate it turning up unannounced in their lasagna.

I: Intelligence
The EU doesn’t have much — of the spying kind, that is. The EU Intelligence Analysis Centre (INTCEN) — which aims to warn Ashton of upcoming threats to the EU — has only 70 people on staff and meager resources. The NSA has around 40,000 employees and an estimated budget of $10 billion.

J: Jose Manuel Barroso
Former Euro-deputy Jean-Louis Bourlanges once described the European Commission president as “a man who knows how to say nothing in five languages” — which is tame compared to the abuse leveled at him by some current French ministers. After recently describing French free-trade opponents as “reactionaries,” he has become public enemy number one in Paris. The former Portuguese premier made jobs and growth the priority of his presidency after taking office in 2004. Unfortunately, the EU has produced neither.

K: Kissinger Question, The
Frustrated by the ever-changing stewardship of the European Union, Henry Kissinger once allegedly asked, “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” The former U.S. secretary of state says he doesn’t remember saying it but is happy to take credit, anyway. Since the Lisbon Treaty (see under: Treaties) the EU finally has an answer for him, according to one of the rare jokes to surface in Brussels. The number is 1-800-1-EUROPE. When you call, an automated voice informs you: “To speak to the European Council President, press 1. For the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, press 2. For the current rotating head of the Council of Ministers, press 3. To reach the European Commission President, press 4….” (The longer you spend in Brussels the funnier this becomes.)

L: Languages
Your high school Spanish is not going to get you very far listening in on the EU. Although English has now replaced French as the club’s “lingua franca,” there are still 23 other official languages requiring simultaneous translation — including Gaelic, which is spoken by less than 3 percent of Irish people.

M: Merkel, Angela
German chancellor affectionately known as “Angie” by diehard fans, and by less flattering nicknames by Southern Europeans living under German-mandated austerity policies. Perfect spy material should she ever decide to leave politics — born in communist East Germany, speaks fluent Russian and has a doctorate in quantum chemistry.

N: Neelie Kroes
As European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, this veteran Dutch politician is one of the most powerful officials in Brussels. She is also one of the very few with a sense of humor. In an #AskNeelie Q+A in 2012 one tweep asked what she was wearing. To which the Dutch politician replied: “Would u believe if I say Chanel Number 5 and nothing else?” How’s that for transparency?

O: Olli Rehn
The Finnish Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs and the Euro is another believer in full transparency. He holds regular briefings for select Brussels-based journalists in the sauna of the European Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters. This may be because it’s the only place that isn’t bugged and where there aren’t angry mobs pro

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testing at the EU’s austerity measures. Plus after five minutes, hacks get too lightheaded to remember their questions.

P: Parliament, The European
The EU’s only directly elected body has been gaining powers in inverse proportion to voters since the first poll was held in 1979 — turnout is now down to U.S. midterm levels of around 40 percent. The EU assembly meets mainly in Brussels but decamps to Strasbourg every month and has several thousand staff marooned in Luxembourg — hence its “traveling circus” moniker. Headed by pugnacious president Martin Schulz, a vocal critic of U.S. snooping.

Gone are the days when member states wielded vetoes — apart from when protecting the glory of French cinema, of course. Now, almost all decisions in the Council of the EU are made by qualified majority voting (QMV.) This system divvies up votes roughly according to population size. Or, to paraphrase Orwell: “all EU states are equal but some — notably Germany — are more equal than others.”

R: Referendum
When EU treaties are changed, some states have to ask voters to ratify them in referenda. If the answer is “no,” the EU’s tried and trusted method is to keep asking the people to vote until they come up with the right answer. This worked for Denmark once and Ireland twice.

S: Single Currency
The euro, which is used by 17 of the EU’s 28 member states, was devised as a way of keeping down Germans and uniting Europeans. It has failed to do the former and succeeded at the latter: Now, most Europeans in most big countries believe EU integration has weakened their economies.

T: Treaties
The United States has a constitution, which has served it pretty well for 226 years. The EU has treaties, which it changes roughly once a decade. The latest is the Lisbon Treaty, which was supposed to make the EU leaner and simpler to understand. It has done nothing of the sort. For example, the new rulebook was meant to scrap the rotating six-month presidency of the Council in favor of a longer-term president. But when the measure came to be implemented, no state wanted to give up its once-in-every-14-years stint in the spotlight. So, now the Council has both a “president” (Herman Van Rompuy) and a “presidency” (Lithuania since July 1).

U: U.K.
Although America’s 51st state — which is how many Europeans view Britain — is still  in the EU, it may not be for much longer. Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged a referendum on British membership in the Union if he wins the next election; polls now show a slim majority in favor of leaving. A “Brexit” may spark street parties in France, but not in the United States — which is so chummy with London it has signed a formal “no-spy” deal with it.

V: Van Rompuy, Herman
Back in 2009, Europeans finally answered the Kissinger question and created the post of EU president — or European Council president, to be exact. Your leading candidates for the post were Tony Blair or a Haiku-writing politician so mousy he had to be coaxed into becoming prime minister of Belgium and only lasted in the job for a year. You go for Blair right? Wrong.

W: Washington, D.C.
The United States has gone from being the European Union’s new BFF since Obama came to office to reverting to its traditional role as the over-protective big brother Europeans love to bitch about since the NSA PRISM story broke. When the Guardian headlined an article “How the US is bugging European allies,” on Monday, most European readers probably chuckled at the unintentional play on words.

X: X
What you jot down in the surveillance log every time you hear someone say something in Brussels that is actually likely to change anything. So you can safely ignore EU politicians’ calls for lower labor costs and higher defense spending and most finger-wagging at rogue regimes.

Y: Youth unemployment
In the EU, almost a quarter of young people are jobless, with the figure rising to over 50 percent in countries like Greece and Spain. The problem has now reached such epic proportions that the EU … wait for it … held a summit about it in June. At the meeting, leaders earmarked 6 billion euros to help the Union’s 26 million unemployed people find work — roughly one-tenth of the cash doled out in subsidies to farmers and fishermen every year.

Z: Zzzz…
The likely results of the NSA’s Brussels surveillance efforts.

This article first appeared in Foreign Policy on 3 July 2013

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