No products in the cart.
Press Play to listen to this article
Margrethe Vestager, EU superstar flag bearer for digital rights, is faced with embarrassing questions about high-tech snooping that allegedly took place when she was considered Denmark’s most powerful politician.
Danish media company DR reported on Sunday that Copenhagen helped American spies gather information from Germany, Sweden and other European countries between 2012 and 2014 – a time when Vestager was seen in her role as the most influential player in government de facto Deputy Prime Minister, seated on a Security Oversight Committee.
This schedule threatens to embarrass the European Commission’s digital colonel, who is best known internationally for his pioneering antitrust proceedings against Google and Apple. With regard to US espionage, there are two possible scenarios, both of which pose a political threat. She either knew about the alleged US espionage activities by Danish institutions, which would affect their transparency recognitions, or she did not know, which during her years in office raises deeper questions about the accountability of the Danish government and security services.
The revelations went badly for Denmark. French President Emmanuel Macron said he was waiting “for answers” from Copenhagen and Washington, while US whistleblower Edward Snowden opened the fire from asserts Denmark was working on a US plan to kidnap him in 2013.
Sweden’s Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist also told POLITICO that he expected an appropriate response from Copenhagen.
“I take the media reports about the alleged electronic surveillance of Swedish politicians and officials seriously,” said Hultqvist. “I asked the Danish Defense Minister whether platforms in Denmark have been used to monitor Swedish interests or whether other actors have used Danish platforms as a means of monitoring in Sweden.”
Patrick Breyer, a member of the German Pirate Party in the European Parliament in the group of the Greens, also insisted that there was a tension between the Danish report and the role of the commissioner. “I think that Ms Vestager has to ask and answer questions, even if it is uncomfortable, because the Commission itself is proposing things to monitor in many ways, including mass surveillance and data storage,” he said.
For now, Vestager remains sphinx-like with what she knew. On a principle she said she was against wiretapping. “I think I’ve always held this view that, no, you shouldn’t spy on your neighbors,” she told reporters on Thursday.
When asked if she had known about espionage during her reign, however, she was evasive and only said that intelligence services are not part of her official ministerial portfolio.
“When I was minister in Denmark, I was minister of economy and interior. As Minister of the Interior in Denmark is responsible for elections and referendums as well as the work of the municipalities and regions from an economic and legal point of view. There are no secret services in there [the responsibilities] that you ask, “she replied when asked if she knew about the espionage.
Vestager ignored what, if any, intelligence her role on the government’s security committee gave her.
The difficulty with Vestager’s response to her limited ministerial mandate is that she was widely recognized that she held power in the 2011-2015 government of Helle Thorning-Schmidt that went well beyond her formal portfolio. Vestager took on its competitive role in Brussels in 2014.
Although she was the leader of the smaller party, she was ranked more influential than Thorning-Schmidt in a 2012 watched ranking by altinget.dk, a website for Danish political insiders.
“The prime minister is the formal boss, but she is still only number two on the list,” said an article accompanying the list.
Danish experts contacted by POLITICO said the issue of Vestager’s involvement in intelligence decisions in 2012-2014 was difficult to assess, not least because the classified material that DR has reported so far says little about political oversight.
“We don’t have a lot of hard facts about this,” says Thomas Wegener Friis, intelligence researcher at the University of Southern Denmark. “It is currently quite difficult to say for sure what and if Vestager knew.”
The experts said it could be that Vestager’s leadership role in government still does not include access to highly sensitive operational information. This may be because Thorning-Schmidt withheld it from her, or that Thorning-Schmidt did not know anything about the alleged NSA operation, possibly because secret services withheld it from her. Thorning-Schmidt, meanwhile co-chairman of a supervisory body at the social media company Facebook, could not be reached for an opinion.
As the European Commission wants to push for new regulation of areas such as surveillance and confidentiality of communications networks, it is important that we know how Vestager “holds up” the espionage allegations in the US and Denmark, said Breyer, the German MEP.
Sophie in ‘t Veld, a Dutch MEP from the liberal group Renew Europe, said it was high time that proper attention was paid to alleged intra-European espionage, which has not happened in recent years.
“The thing now is, do we want to be regularly outraged every time something like this comes up, or are we actually going to tackle it?” asked in ‘t Veld.
The greatest pressure is currently on Denmark’s current Defense Minister Trine Bramsen, who has only been in office since 2019. She said “systematic wiretapping of close allies is unacceptable”.
That hasn’t allayed the concerns, and the questions probably won’t just go away.
In Sweden, Defense Minister Hultqvist said the issue was being investigated and his words suggested the matter could hang on Vestager and other Danish leaders past and present for some time.
“The process of gathering information about these media reports is now under way and we need to give this process time,” he said.
Do you want more analysis of POLITICS? POLITICS Pro is our premium intelligence service for professionals. From financial services to commerce, technology, cybersecurity, and more, Pro offers the real-time intelligence, deep insights, and breakthrough insight you need to stay one step ahead. E-mail [email protected] to request a free trial.