Berlin: The European Union and US are set to kick off long-awaited negotiations on a free trade agreement (FTA) in Washington Monday despite growing demands to delay the talks until allegations of American spying on EU officials and sweeping surveillance of citizens are cleared.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has made a fresh appeal to stick to the road map agreed when the trade talks were formally launched at the G-8 summit in Dublin last month and also to hold parallel discussions to investigate America's unprecedented espionage operations, exposed by intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The trans-Atlantic negotiations to create the world's largest free trade zone should not be dropped in the wake of the US espionage scandal and they must be carried out "well-targeted and without putting the other issues under the table" she told an election campaign rally of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) at the weekend in the state of North Rhine Westphalia.
Snowden's revelations in the past weeks that the US National Security Agency (NSA) had bugged the EU embassies in Washington and at the United Nations as well as its headquarters in Brussels and systematically collected vast amounts of internet and telephone data of EU citizens had threatened to derail the EU-US FTA negotiations.
Merkel criticised the NSA's blanket cyber surveillance and bugging of EU offices and said they cannot be justified with the argument that they are in the interest of protecting Europe and its citizens against possible terrorist attacks.
"Eavesdropping among friends cannot be tolerated. The era of cold war is over," she said.
However, a "proper balance" must be maintained between protecting citizens against terrorism and safeguarding their personal data, she said.
The European Commission confirmed at the weekend that an agreement was reached among the EU member-nations to start the negotiations with the US on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership as planned tomorrow and to take up parallel joint investigations into the alleged US bugging of EU offices and snooping into the internet and telephone data.
However, the discussions on the espionage scandal will be held only in one joint working group and will be restricted to data privacy and the NSA's surveillance programmes codenamed PRISM.
EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso expressed the hope that the joint EU-US investigations will provide "sufficient clarifications" on the spying allegations, which are necessary to restore mutual confidence as the two sides prepared to usher in a new era in transatlantic cooperation.
An FTA "is not just in the interest of the EU, but it is also clearly in the interest of the US," Barroso said.
German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser Schnarrenberger has demanded a detailed clarification from the US on the alleged NSA espionage activities before FTA negotiations can get under way.
Peer Steinbrueck, chancellor Merkel's main opponent in the parliamentary election in September, has said that the FTA negotiations should be delayed until the espionage allegations are sufficiently clarified.