Time to step outside the comfort zone: Germany must offer Edward Snowden asylum

Berlin is angry, but is it angry enough to take the right step?

An interesting opinion piece by German journalist Paul Hockennos appeared on Al Jazeera this week, discussing why Germany should offer Edward Snowden asylum. The piece pretty much reflects my opinion on the matter and it makes some very valid and important points. It also asks the key question quoted above: is Germany ready to take what is not only the next logical, but also a decisive and crucial step: grant Edward Snowden political asylum. This has less to do with anger than with necessity and sensibility.

The German government may recently have asked the CIA’s Berlin station chief to leave, following the discovery of what seem to be US spies inside the German BND (the foreign intelligence agency) and even on the NSA investigative committee of the German parliament. While this is unprecedented and has been hailed as a strong sign that Germany is not prepared to stand for US spying anymore, I agree with Hockennos that the step is merely symbolic.

Germany now needs to offer Edward Snowden asylum. Doing so would be the only way of really making a difference, taking a stand and showing that the German government supports a thorough investigation into mass surveillance – which, I am guessing, it really doesn’t.

Still, apart from this and the obvious (that Edward Snowden deserves our respect, help and solidarity), there are various other good reasons to grant Snowden asylum:

One, it would be

a concrete, constructive step in the direction of addressing the problem of the world’s powers’ out-of-control data gathering at both the diplomatic and private level.


[i]t’s high time that the European Union, led by Germany, took the lead on restoring the civil liberties of ordinary citizens robbed of them during the war on terror. Nothing would underscore this priority more clearly than rewarding Snowden with a safe home.

Three, it

would also prompt a long-overdue readjustment in the transatlantic relationship, which the expulsion of a single spy chief — a highly conventional way of marking displeasure — won’t do….Providing political asylum to Snowden would mean so much more than this harmless diplomatic swipe. It would spark a reassessment of U.S. foreign policy since the war on terror began.

Both Germany and the U.S. have been slow to readjust to the post–Cold War reality of a fully sovereign Germany that has become the de facto leader of the EU.

As such,

both Germany and the EU share responsibility for [the current] state of affairs. They have both been far too lethargic about establishing independent, clearly formulated foreign affairs and security policies.

The importance of these reasons should not be underestimated. In fact, one of the main points of criticism that could be launched against the German government – and I have said this before – is that Merkel is wasting precisely this opportunity: that of establishing independent policies and a counter-weight to US dominance, based on

principles and precedents for foreign and security policies that could look very different from those of the U.S. in the 21st century, namely ones based largely, though not exclusively, on strategic diplomacy, trade-and-aid, conflict prevention, human rights and democratization.

The EU and Germany both have some good principles that should not be easily sacrificed for the sake of a flawed “friendship” or in fact the quarrels that have been going on within the EU for a long time and which have been exacerbated recently for example by the increasingly Eurosceptic stance of the UK government. The short-sightedness that dominates the foreign politics of many EU countries is shocking and Germany is currently wasting an opportunity to negotiate a stronger position for itself and the EU.

Of course, Merkel’s government has repeatedly cited the importance of US-German relations – this is “the bottom line” and “[s]ometimes the conservatives say [it]outright” – as a reason for not granting Edward Snowden asylum or for failing to take a more emphatic stance.

However, Germany has taken an independent course from the US before

mostly notably in 2003 when Gerhard Schröder’s center-left administration not only declined to partake in the U.S. invasion of Iraq but openly criticized the Bush administration. The dimensions of the acrimony that were provoked between Berlin and Washington shouldn’t be forgotten. This current diplomatic tiff is going to have to escalate a long, long way to measure up.

Basically, Germany has seen worse and lived through it – US-German relations have lived through it. Merkel seems to have forgotten that, but her politics of “wait and see” simply won’t do anymore. It is time someone called nonsense on the German government’s warning that

Germany couldn’t guarantee Snowden’s safety in Germany, in the event that the U.S. issues a snatch order or demands his arrest and extradition.


claim that German security couldn’t protect Snowden on German soil is nonsense, a feeble excuse to not consider inviting him or considering asylum. Merkel doesn’t want to offend Germany’s powerful ally and security provider.

I have blogged before on whether it can be true that Germany would not be able to protect Snowden. It made me worry about German sovereignty and about who really runs the country.

I am now almost certain that what these warnings really are, is an attempt to scare Snowden off, to stop him from getting to Germany and applying for asylum the moment he sets foot on German soil. The German administration, I am guessing, fears the dilemma it would be facing if that happened: extraditing Snowden would undermine any claim that the government is interested in a thorough investigation into the NSA affair even more than any of their previous moves have done. Also, it would pitch public opinion further against them. Not letting Snowden into Germany is one thing – handing him over to the US would be quite another. It should be obvious why getting stuck between a rock and a hard place like that is a situation that the German government is trying to avoid at all costs. Sadly, it is costing the government its credibility and the respect not only of German citizens but of people outside of Germany as well. It is also costing Germans their rights and civil liberties. More than that, Merkel’s administration is wasting an opportunity of formulating new “foreign and security policies” for both Germany and the EU “which would view the U.S. as an important partner and ally but not Europe’s minder.”

Clearly, taking a step forwards into the depth of uncharted waters can be uncomfortable and frightening. It is a particular condition of human nature to try and avoid that sort of thing, to stick with what we know, even if we know it to be potentially disadvantageous or harmful. The comfort of the known often seems preferable to the fear and discomfort of the unknown. However, there comes a time when we need to step outside our comfort zones towards something new and unfamiliar to improve the conditions we live in. For the EU – and for Germany in particular – that time is now. For Merkel’s administration, wasting that opportunity not only means passing up the chance of shifting the balance between Germany, the EU and the US. It also means letting down its electorate in more ways than one.


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