Austria filed a formal complaint over suspicions that German and American intelligence agencies have spied on its authorities and firms, the Austrian interior minister said on Tuesday.
“Austria demands clarification,” Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner told Reuters, following German media reports about such activities. She added that Austria’s security authorities were in contact with their German counterparts.
“Today we have filed a legal complaint with the prosecutor’s office,” she said, “against an unknown entity due to secret intelligence services to Austria’s disadvantage.”
German media reports said the BND, Germany’s intelligence agency, used its Bad Aibling listening post in Bavaria to spy on the French presidential palace, French foreign ministry and European Commission.
The snooping was done at the behest of US spy agency National Security Agency (NSA), which also asked the BND to monitor European firms to check if they were breaking trade embargos, according to reports.
Mikl-Leitner said that while there is not yet concrete evidence, “it’s not far-fetched to suspect that Austria was also spied on.”
She added that Austria will try to resolve the situation through its security, diplomatic and judicial bodies.
The NSA is believed to have passed a list of some 800,000 IP addresses, phone numbers and email addresses to the BND for monitoring, some of which belonged to European politicians and companies.
Citing an unnamed source from the German parliamentary committee on the US spying agency, German newspaper Bild said Berlin chose to remain silent and close its eyes to the information in order to avoid “endangering cooperation” with Washington and the NSA.
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere has denied reports that he was aware of the spying since at least 2008.
During a press briefing Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Berlin is engaged in consultations with Washington on the NSA’s surveillance practices.
“I think what’s important here is that friends do not spy on each other. The answer is that it should not be so,” Merkel said.
She continued: “We are at the disposal of respective parliamentary bodies. The chancellor’s office is ready to provide all necessary information. This process is already under way. We are also consulting the United States.”
Secret documents leaked in 2013 by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden showed that the US spy agency monitored Merkel’s personal cell phone too.
Austria plans to take the European Commission to court over its approval of state subsidies to the $24-billion nuclear power plant Hinkley Point C, which is set to become the UK’s first new nuclear reactor in two decades.
Last October, the EU approved a UK state subsidy request for the project, a deal between French-owned nuclear developer EDF and the UK government.
Though the project was met with skepticism by some commissioners, four of whom voted against the decision, the commission decided that the UK’s plans to subsidize the construction and operation of the plant are in accordance with EU state aid regulations.
Construction has already begun on the plant, which is expected to replace a fifth of Britain’s aging nuclear power and coal plants, and provide 7 percent of the UK’s electricity by 2023.
Austria, a fully non-nuclear nation, considers nuclear energy to be both economically and environmentally unsustainable. The country will launch its appeal within two months after the publication of the official Hinkley decision in the EU journal, Austria’s environment ministry director Andreas Molin told the Guardian. The journal is to be released in two weeks.
The appeal will argue that the UK’s loan guarantees for the project constitute illegal state aid.
“Austria strictly rejects any kind of direct or indirect subsidies to nuclear power, arguing for the complete internalization of all external costs based on the polluter pays principle,” Austrian environment ministry Julia Puchegger told Interfax Energy.
“Austria also doesn’t consider nuclear power to be eligible for the European Fund for Strategic Investments [EFSI],” she added.
The lawsuit could delay an investment decision for over two years “as this is going to be a more complicated and fundamental case,” Molin said.
The EU’s 2014-2020 environment and energy guidelines don’t include specific rules for nuclear energy subsidies, which are to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Though the EDF had planned to sign a funding agreement with its Chinese partners in March, an essential step for securing a final investment plan, an Austrain lawsuit may put these plans on the backburner.
Bulgarian officials say the construction of the Russian-led South Stream gas pipeline does not breach EU legislation. The European Commission is concerned the agreement between Russia and Bulgaria violates EU competition law.
The Bulgarian government stood by its position on the legality of the pipeline in a Wednesday statement, ITAR-TASS reports. The agreement on South Stream construction signed in 2008 did not provide any exclusive rights, concessions, or tendering for the South Stream Bulgaria Company which is the owner of the pipeline, and therefore it does not violate EU law, it said.
“With its position the government presents arguments and motives in support of the decisions the Bulgarian nation has taken and which were the subject of concern at the EU Commission,” Reuters quotes the official statement.
Bulgaria will put these arguments at the Brussels summit on Friday, but the decision of the commission whether to accept or reject them may end up in full infringement proceedings and possible fines against Sofia, Reuters says.
According to Gunther Oettinger, the European Commissioner for Energy, the construction process should be suspended until, “it completely corresponds to the requirements of the European Union.”
On Tuesday Austria, another strong defender of the pipeline, signed a deal to construct a South Stream arm on its territory, thus showing its firm commitment.
The 2,446 km South Stream pipeline will stretch across southern and central Europe via the Black Sea, bypassing Ukraine and reducing the country’s importance as a gas transit route. 64 billion cubic meters of gas will be transported annually.
Gazprom has said the project, estimated to cost $45 billion, can be completed without any funding from international partners.
Russia and Austria have agreed on a joint company to construct the Austrian arm of the $45 billion South Stream gas pipeline project, which is expected to deliver 32 billion cubic meters of Russian gas to the country, bypassing Ukraine.
At Tuesday’s meeting in Vienna, the creation of South Stream Austria was announced. The company will be 50 percent owned by Gazprom, Russia’s largest gas producer, and 50 percent by Austria’s OMV Group, the country’s largest oil and gas company.
Construction on the Austrian section is expected to begin in 2015 and that the first deliveries will start in 2017, reaching full capacity in January 2018.
OMV spokesman Robert Lechner was more optimistic, and said the first South Stream deliveries could come as early as 2016.
In April, Gazprom and the OMV Group signed a memorandum to implement the South Stream project in Austria.
At Tuesday’s meeting in Vienna, OMV CEO Gerhard Roiss said that South Stream fully complies with EU legislation.
“This project- investment in European energy security- will fully comply with EU legislation,” Roiss said, as quoted by ITAR-ITASS.
There has been controversy over South Stream, as is it needs EU approval so that it doesn’t violate Europe’s ‘Third Energy Package’, which says a company cannot both own and operate pipelines within the European Union.
Ahead of Putin’s visit to Vienna, Austrian ministers said they remained committed to Russia’s South Stream project and that they plan to speed it up.
The geopolitical conflict in Ukraine has also complicated the South Stream project, as EU energy lobbying groups are campaigning against the project, to lessen Europe’s dependence on Russia.
“So far [Austria, Ed,] takes a very clear position, avoiding pressure from the European Commission and in general, public opinion in Europe that wants to halt or even stop the project. At the same time it [Austria, Ed] has enough political clout to promote this project. It’s not Bulgaria, which on its own cannot defend itself,” Fyodor Lukyanov, Chairman of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, said on Monday.
South Stream will deliver gas to Europe bypassing Ukraine, which is seen as an unreliable transit state.
After switching Ukraine to a prepayment system, Russia and Gazprom fear Ukraine will start to siphon gas supplies headed towards Europe, as the country did in 2006 and 2009. Miller worries Ukraine may resort to this tactic in winter, once it runs out of its underground storage supplies of natural gas.
“If Ukraine begins to siphon off gas, we will increase supplies via North Stream, and maximize the load through Yamal-Europe,” Aleksey Miller, CEO of Gazprom, said Tuesday in Vienna.
The 2,446 km pipeline will stretch across southern and central Europe and will transport over 64 billion cubic meters of natural gas to Europe per year.
Gazprom has said the project, estimated to cost $45 billion, can be completed without any funding from international partners.
Gazprom is Russia’s largest producer of natural gas and provides roughly one third of Europe’s gas needs.
The head of the Russian Duma’s International Affairs Committee, Aleksey Puskhov, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday that “Ukraine is in a long-term phase of unpredictability. Thus, South Stream is the only guarantee of uninterrupted gas supply to Europe.”
South American countries belonging to the Mercosur trade bloc have decided to withdraw their ambassadors for consultations from European countries involved in the grounding of the Bolivian president’s plane.
“We’ve taken a number of actions in order to compel public explanations and apologies from the European nations that assaulted our brother Evo Morales,” explained Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro, who revealed some of the agenda debated during the 45th summit of Mercosur countries in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo.
The decision to recall European ambassadors was taken by Maduro, Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez, Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff, and Uruguay’s President, Jose Mujica, during the meeting.
Member states attending the summit expressed their grievances with “actions by the governments of France, Spain, Italy and Portugal” over the July 2 incident, when the aircraft carrying President Evo Morales back to Bolivia after attending an energy summit in Moscow was denied entry into the airspace of a number of EU member states.
The small aircraft, which required a stop-over before completing its flight, was forced to make an emergency landing in Austria after a circuitous flight path.
It was later revealed that the European countries’ actions were prompted by accusations made by the US ambassador to Austria, William Eacho, who alleged that American whistleblower Edward Snowden had been taken on board to help him gain political asylum in Latin America.
“The gravity of the incident – indicative of a neocolonial mindset – constitutes an unfriendly and hostile act, which violates human rights and impedes freedom of travel, as well as the treatment and immunity appropriate to a head of state,” the Mercosur nations affirmed in the joint statement.
The incident was further described as a “discriminatory and arbitrary” decision by European countries, as well as a “blatant violation of international law.”
‘An act of aggression and violation of international law’ is how Bolivia’s UN envoy described Austria’s decision to search the Bolivian presidential jet for NSA leaker Edward Snowden. The envoy has pledged to make an official complaint to the UN.
Envoy Sacha Llorentty Soliz told press in New York that he had no doubt the decision to search the plane originated from the US.
Austrian authorities grounded Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane in Vienna early on Wednesday morning due to suspicions that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was on board. Morales refuted speculation that Snowden had stowed away on the plane and allowed authorities to conduct a search.
“Our colleagues from the airport had a look and can give assurances that no one is on board who is not a Bolivian citizen,” Austrian Deputy Chancellor Michael Spindelegger told press, saying rumors that Snowden might be on board were untrue.
The move to detain the presidential plane triggered a wave of furious rhetoric from Latin American leaders who alleged it had been “kidnapped by imperialism.”
Morales called on the countries who had cancelled air permits for the presidential flight to explain their decision.
“The governments of France, Spain and Portugal must explain to the world the reasons behind this delay,” said Morales, adding that these actions were indicative of the “repressive policies” of some EU countries.
“This is an excuse to try and frighten, intimidate and punish me. An excuse to try and gag us in the fight against the dominant economic powers,” said Morales.
Morales finally flew out of Vienna on Wednesday morning after being detained for over 12 hours in the airport. He will stop of in the Canary Islands to refuel before flying on to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia.
No sooner did a mandatory data retention law go into effect in Austria this month than thousands of Austrians banded together in a swift opposition campaign to overturn it. The Austrian law originated as the misshapen offspring of the 2006 European Data Retention Directive. Led by AK Vorrat Austria, a working group against mandatory data retention, the pushback against this mass-surveillance law demonstrates that opposition remains alive and well six years after the European Union adopted the infamous Directive.
The Austrian data retention law compels all ISPs and telcos operating in Austria to retain everyone’s incoming and outgoing phone numbers, IP addresses, location data, and other key telecom and Internet traffic data. The information is collected for all citizens, rather than just those suspected criminal activity. In many cases, the data is handed over to law enforcement.
Austrian activists took advantage of a two-year delay of the implementation of this ill-conceived Directive in their country by mapping out their opposition strategy in advance. They sought to leverage a two tier strategy to beat back the Data Retention Directive at the European level, and to fight against the Austrian data retention law at the national level.
One day before the law entered into force, Austrian activists organized funeral marches to protest this anti-privacy, anti-anonymity, anti-free expression law.
Now, just weeks after the Directive officially went into effect, its future hangs in the balance as a pair of efforts calling for its reversal speed toward Austria’s Constitutional Court. Austrian activists are seeking to overturn the legality of the Austrian law with a mass complaint filed with Austria’s Constitutional Court. With nearly 7,000 supporters formally signed on and 18,000 declaring their intent to join, that effort that is shaping up to be “the biggest complaint in the history of the republic,” according to European Digital Rights (EDRi), a coalition of 32 privacy and civil rights organizations working in the European Union, including EFF. AK Vorrat Austria initially announced that it hoped to bring 1,000 individuals together to sign onto the complaint – and surpassed that goal in two days’ time.
But activists aren’t stopping there. On a parallel track, AK Vorrat Austria has already gathered 100,000 signatures for a citizens’ initiative calling for their government to work towards the abolishment of the EU Directive. The signatures are enough to meet the required threshold to force the issue to be considered by the National Council, Austria’s legislative branch of government.
This isn’t the first time this Directive has sparked an uproar in Europe. When it first became clear that the EU was going to cave to governmental lobbying interests from the U.S. and UK and enact a sweeping law that would effectively legitimize mass surveillance, the Freedom not Fear movement responded with massive street protests in Germany and across Europe.
The opposition continues, and is only growing. Courts in Romania, Germany, and the Czech Republic have declared their national laws derived from the EU Directive to be unconstitutional, while a court in Ireland has referred a case to the European Court of Justice—the highest Court in Europe for matters related to European Union law—questioning the legality of the overall EU Data Retention Directive. The European Data Protection Supervisor Peter Hustinx has called the Directive “the most privacy-invasive instrument ever adopted by the EU in terms of scale and the number of people it affects.” Despite all this, the European Commission is still defending it even though it has not been able to provide any evidence that the Directive is necessary, and therefore legal, in the European Union.
Austrian Association for Internet users (VIBE!AT), the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights and several other Austrian activists are encouraging all concerned Austrians to join this fight. Austrians can join the mass complaint against the Austrian data retention law by filling out the declaration form by May 18, available at verfassungsklage.at.
Meanwhile, all Austrians age 16 and older should support the citizens’ initiative online at zeichnemit.at (in German) to call for the abolishment of the EU data retention directive. Take Action: Sign the citizens’ initiative now. Tell the Austrian government to fight for the repeal of the European Data Retention Directive in Brussels.
- ACTA in the EU: We Can’t Call it Dead Yet (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- European Data Retention Directive At Work: Polish Authorities Abuse Access to Users’ Data (eff.org)