Chancellor Angela Merkel’s diplomatic visit to Brazil on Wednesday is being billed as a historic summit to strengthen ties on trade, investment and climate change initiatives with Germany’s most important economic ally in South America.
But the trip will also allow Ms. Merkel a rare opportunity to huddle closely with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, a world leader with whom she has forged an unusual and personal common bond: Both believe they have been directly — and wrongfully — targeted by spies at the U.S. National Security Agency.
Though it is not on their official agenda, observers expect Ms. Merkel and Ms. Rousseff to at least informally discuss global espionage, as the nations have worked in tandem over the past two years to steer the international community’s attention toward digital privacy. And, more recently, both leaders have endured criticism for softening their stances against government surveillance.
“The focus of the first German-Brazilian government consultations will be on science, technology and innovation as well as on the co-operation on environmental and climate issues,” a German government spokesperson, who declined to be named, said when asked if surveillance will be on the agenda. “Please understand that we cannot anticipate the contents of the talks between Chancellor Merkel and President Rousseff.”
Likely no other U.S. ally has been as visibly irate as Germany or Brazil about the extent of the NSA’s sweeping Internet and telephone surveillance programs since the Edward Snowden leaks first emerged in June 2013.
The classified files appeared to reveal that the spy agency had been eavesdropping — perhaps even without U.S. President Barack Obama’s full knowledge or consent — on the private communications of both Ms. Merkel and Ms. Rousseff.
The snooping evoked outrage from Ms. Merkel, who told Mr. Obama in a phone conversation that the NSA’s activities were akin to the oppressive tactics employed by the Stasi, the secret police that operated in communist East Germany — where the chancellor grew up — before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Last summer, Ms. Merkel told the CIA spy chief stationed in Germany to pack his bags amid continued frustration about the U.S.’ surveillance habits.
Ms. Rousseff’s reaction was equally incendiary. She opened the United Nations General Assembly in September 2013 with a speech accusing the NSA of being guilty of “a serious case of the violations of human rights and civil liberties.”
The dramatic address crescendoed when she charged that the Obama administration was guilty of “a case of disrespect to the national sovereignty of my country.” Citing the leaks, Ms. Rousseff also canceled a state visit to Washington and demanded a formal apology.
The shared anger toward the NSA brought Germany and Brazil together on the global stage, as the pair led efforts pushing for tougher digital privacy protections from foreign intelligence agencies — a concern they argue constitutes a 21st century human rights issue.
Spying revelations continue to bind Ms. Merkel and Ms. Rousseff, in addition to their shared economic and environmental goals.
The crusade included pressuring the U.N. General Assembly to adopt resolutions in 2013 and 2014 denouncing unchecked mass surveillance practices and promoting privacy rights on the Internet.
Both nations were also key backers of the U.N. Human Rights Council’s creation earlier this year of a special rapporteur on the right to privacy.
But despite their efforts, the German and Brazilian leaders are facing growing criticism from anti-surveillance proponents who have suggested their efforts to rein in the NSA may have been disingenuous and orchestrated largely for political gain.
“There is a bit of a contradiction in their message internationally and what they are doing in their own countries,” said Estelle Massé, a policy analyst for Access, a New York-based global digital rights organization.
Ms. Merkel has been under increased fire since May, when new files emerged suggesting that the BND, Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, had helped the NSA spy on other European nations. Though her approval numbers still soar, the news contributed to a dip of about five points down to 70 percent, according to an Infratest Dimap poll.
Ms. Rousseff, meanwhile, appeared to bury the hatchet with the U.S. president earlier this summer, when she finally visited the White House after canceling her trip two years ago. Skeptics have said Ms. Rousseff, whose popularity in her country has been sagging amid an economic downturn and corruption allegations, chose to play nice with President Obama because of her current challenges.
Ms. Massé, who works in Brussels for Access, said that Germany in particular has often said one thing about digital privacy but done another. She pointed to the recent scandal involving the Berlin tech site Netzpolitik, which published secret government documents detailing Germany’s plans to expand its intelligence monitoring of social media.
That prompted the country’s top prosecutor to launch an investigation against Netzpolitik journalists for treason before public backlash spurred the German justice minister to fire the prosecutor. The investigation was abandoned after the flap.
“This is a worrying response from a country that has been so vocal on the international stage for privacy rights,” Ms. Massé added.
Spying revelations continue to bind Ms. Merkel and Ms. Rousseff, in addition to their shared economic and environmental goals. German businesses are hoping for a reduction in import duties and taxes to free up more bilateral trade.
Brazil is one of the continent's largest and most important markets for German automakers, builders and infrastructure providers. Ms. Rousseff in June proposed a €50 billion, or about $55.3 billion, investment program to improve Brazil's infrastructure for its roads, ports and other essential networks.
President Obama and the Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, have already visited Ms. Rousseff to express interest in being a part of the investment program, as Ms. Merkel now is doing.
Germany is Brazil's fourth-largest trading partner, with a trade volume of about €18 billion.
About 1,400 German companies are active in Brazil, including ThyssenKrupp, the country's largest steelmaker which has said it wants to sell a new steel plant it recently built in Brazil as the German company seeks to boost earnings.
But one German steel expert, Lars Hettche, an analyst at Frankfurt-based bank Metzler, doesn't think Ms. Merkel, who is not traveling with an entourage of business leaders, will take up the issue personally with Ms. Rousseff.
"I believe this issue has fallen off the radar,'' Mr. Hettche said. "When looking at ThyssenKrupp, Brazil is no longer so important. Results are now hovering around breakeven. The plant is functioning reasonably, but against a background of Brazil’s weak economic situation it is hard to make a profit.”
German exports to Brazil have doubled since 2000 to about €10.4 billion, or $11.5 billion, last year, but the share of total exports has remained fairly stable at around 1 percent, data from Germany’s statistics office Destatis show.
By comparison, German exports to China have become more important, rising from about 1.5 percent in 2000 to around 6 percent of total exports, or €74.5 billion, last year.
“Brazil is less important than China or other developing countries in Asia, which have more stable economies,” said Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, a business and economics professor at the University of Duisburg-Essen and an auto industry expert.
Mr. Dudenhöffer said Mexico, not Brazil, is perhaps more important as an export market for German automakers such as VW, BMW and Daimler because it has better connections and access to the larger U.S. domestic market.
VW and Daimler have factories in Brazil to produce cars and circumvent relatively high Brazilian import duties, Mr. Dudenhöffer added. There were also assembly lines by German and U.S. carmakers, where cars were being screwed together again to circumvent the duties, he said.
But such nitty-gritty business issues may take a back seat to data concerns when Ms. Merkel and Ms. Rousseff meet Wednesday in Brazil. Then, the two leaders of the world's fourth- and seventh-largest economies may find themselves not only lamenting the NSA, but how quickly the scandal has gone from a political winner to a potential liability at home.
Dustin Volz is a tech policy correspondent for the Washington-based National Journal, where he writes about digital privacy and security issues. He is currently an Arthur F. Burns fellow of the International Journalists' Programme at Handelsblatt Global Edition. Handelsblatt editor Gilbert Kreijger also contributed reporting to this article, as did Fabian Federl at Berlin daily newspaper Tagesspiegel. To reach the authors: [email protected], [email protected]