BERLIN – German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier on Monday defended describing the United States as “unreliable and untrustworthy” in a debate over whether Chinese companies should be banned from providing equipment for Germany’s 5G telecoms network.
The U.S. ambassador to Berlin, Richard Grenell, strongly condemned the remarks, branding them “an insult to the thousands of American troops who help ensure Germany’s security and the millions of Americans committed to a strong Western alliance.”
Altmaier, Angela Merkel’s former chief of staff and a close ally of the chancellor, made the comments on live television Sunday during a talk show about whether Germany should allow China’s Huawei to provide equipment for the rollout of the 5G network. Merkel has advocated letting the Chinese in, despite deep reservations both within her own party and her governing coalition.
In his remarks, the minister made reference to spying in Germany by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), which included eavesdropping on Merkel’s mobile phone calls.
“We live in an open world,” Altmaier said to a journalist on the show who challenged the government’s position. “I recall during the NSA affair, when I was chief of staff, how you continuously investigated how unreliable and untrustworthy the U.S. government was, and we didn’t impose a boycott then either.”
“In no way did I put countries that do not respect the rule of law on the same level as democracies that respect the rule of law such as the United States — quite the opposite” — German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier
Asked about the comments by POLITICO on the sidelines of a technology conference in Berlin, Altmaier said he was “very upset” by what he termed mischaracterizations of his remarks.
“In no way did I put countries that do not respect the rule of law on the same level as democracies that respect the rule of law such as the United States — quite the opposite,” he said, adding that he had instead “defended the United States against accusations of mass surveillance of the internet, which were raised by [German] opposition politicians” after the revelations in 2013 that the NSA had bugged Merkel’s mobile phone.
But Altmaier added that it is “important to note” that regulation forcing companies to hand over data to state authorities under certain conditions “exist in many countries when it comes to law enforcement,” in an apparent reference to the U.S. CLOUD Act, which was signed into law last year by President Donald Trump and allows American authorities to compel U.S.-based tech companies to provide data, regardless of whether it is stored in the U.S. or abroad.
Altmaier’s negative characterization of Germany’s longtime ally and protector illustrates the depth of the rift between the U.S. and Germany, which has worsened in recent months amid trade disputes and Washington’s persistent criticism of Berlin’s failure to meet NATO defense spending goals.
The minister’s comments, which came as Beijing’s repressive policies towards its own population have come into full view in recent days in both Hong Kong and Xinjiang, surprised many viewers and even some of his fellow talk-show guests, who quickly pointed out that the U.S. is a democracy governed by the rule of law.
Grenell, the U.S. ambassador, weighed in with his response the following day.
“The United States and Germany, nations that do share common values, need to work together to call out threats that undermine our democracy and work continuously to advance the cause of freedom,” Grenell said in a statement. “There is no moral equivalency between China and the United States and anyone suggesting it ignores history — and is bound to repeat it.”
Altmaier, however, wasn’t the only senior figure to draw comparisons between the U.S. and China on the talk show. Dieter Kempf, the president of the German Federation of Industries, a powerful business lobby, said he saw no reason to treat Chinese companies any different from American ones.
“As a user of such technology I think it’s important to be sure that a supplier is trustworthy regardless of where they come from,” Kempf said. “If you compare the Chinese intelligence act with the U.S. Patriot Act, which some of us appear to have forgotten, one can see that they have pretty much the same requirements.”
Kempf was referring to stipulations in both laws that tech companies cooperate with government agencies.
The question of whether Germany would be opening the door to Chinese spying by using Huawei’s equipment has risen to the top of the political agenda in recent weeks after the U.S. and other allies voiced concerns.
At their annual party convention over the weekend, Merkel’s Christian Democrats passed a motion over the chancellor’s objections to give the German parliament the final say on the matter.