Joint EU-US group to assess US spy ops

EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding EU Commissioner Reding says the right to privacy is "not negotiable"

A joint EU-US expert group will investigate the alleged US spying on EU officials and report its findings in October, the European Commission says.

EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said the group would meet this month to begin assessing the "proportionality" of the US surveillance programmes.

She called the surveillance "a wake-up call for us to advance on our data protection reform".

There could be no EU-US trade deal without mutual trust, she warned.

The operations were revealed by US whistleblower Edward Snowden, now a fugitive from US justice, who was last reported to be in the transit zone at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport.

Ms Reding said the working group would focus on the US Prism operation under which, according to Mr Snowden, the US National Security Agency (NSA) systematically collects vast amounts of phone and internet data, including communications at EU offices.

She said she had also asked UK Foreign Secretary William Hague to clarify the scope and proportionality of the UK Tempora programme - a vast surveillance operation allegedly run by the UK spy agency GCHQ and co-ordinated with the NSA.

Spying condemned

"The fact that the programmes are said to relate to national security does not mean that anything goes," Ms Reding said. "A balance needs to be struck between the policy objective pursued and the impact on fundamental rights, in particular the right to privacy... privacy is a fundamental right, it is not negotiable."

She was speaking in a European Parliament debate on the NSA spying allegations, in which several MEPs voiced alarm about Mr Snowden's revelations and demanded a full explanation from the US authorities.

The parliament, Commission and EU governments are currently negotiating a major revision of the EU's data protection legislation.

Manfred Weber, a German MEP in the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), said "you don't spy on friends" and the US actions were "not acceptable".

"Our trust has been shaken, but we still have shared interests. We in the EPP believe a free trade agreement [with the US] should be concluded." He added: "The battle will be played out in the field of data protection."

Sophia in 't Veld, a Dutch MEP in the liberal ALDE group, said: "We have to guarantee to citizens that they're covered by European, not US, law.

"The bugging of offices, blanket surveillance of millions of citizens - that's not national security, I don't buy that anymore," she said, calling for US President Barack Obama to give an explanation directly to the European Parliament, representing the EU's 500 million citizens.

She said it would be "misguided" to suspend the long-awaited EU-US trade talks, set to begin this month, "but it's absolutely clear we cannot sign an agreement with a partner we cannot fully trust".

A British Conservative MEP, Timothy Kirkhope, accused some other MEPs of "posturing" over the spy allegations and urged the parliament to gather all the relevant facts before condemning US behaviour.

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