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EU Mute On U.S. Diplomat's Criticism Involving Ukraine


Let's follow up now on a diplomatic gaffe that came last week. It involves an expletive used by an assistant secretary of state to express a rather rude form of anger at the European Union during a private phone conversation. The phone call was intercepted by someone, presumably another government, and leaked to the press. Here's the key moment that people have been talking about since it became public last week.


MONTAGNE: That's American diplomat Victoria Nuland. And to find out more about what she's talking about and also the repercussions for U.S. relations with Europe, we turn now to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. She's in Berlin. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: OK, give us some context. What was the cause of the use of the F-word?

NELSON: Well, she was reportedly talking to the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine about solutions to the political crisis there. And that crisis was sparked by President Yanokovych refusing to pursue closer ties with the EU. It seems that the offhand comment involved - or it appeared to involve, anyway, the U.S. preference for brokering a deal to end the crisis with the U.N. rather than with the EU, who Nuland and others felt that the EU was just not moving fast enough to come up with some sort of deal.

MONTAGNE: Now, Victoria Nuland apologized to some of her colleagues in the EU. And the reaction has been mostly muted except there in Germany, where you are, Soraya, because - partly, I imagine - because Chancellor Angela Merkel and the country are still angry over disclosures last fall that the U.S. was spying on her phone calls.

NELSON: Well, certainly, it was just another insult adding to the injury, if you will. Chancellor Merkel, through a spokeswoman, called it absolutely unacceptable - referring to what Nuland said. And that's pretty harsh language for the chancellor, who's actually quite even-tempered. So it's something that's definitely reverberating here. But it's also important to note that Germans had their own controversy when it came to this situation with Ukraine.

MONTAGNE: How so? What was that?

NELSON: Well, the foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, earlier last week called for sanctions and then a day later, they had to scramble and say no, we didn't really mean that; we want to give the EU a chance. So clearly, there was some frustration in Germany as well with attempts to bring an end to the political crisis in Ukraine.

MONTAGNE: There were other revelations this week that have Germany particularly upset with the U.S. Tell us about those.

NELSON: Well, it came out that Chancellor Schroeder - he's the previous chancellor to Merkel - that his conversations on the phone were being spied on by the NSA, and this was going on at a time when Schroeder was leading the European charge against the war in Iraq. And so that spying is said to have gone on even after he was still chancellor. There is really this disappointment that people feel here with America and all these measures that are going on.

MONTAGNE: Just finally, do you think there would be potential fallout from the surveillance and the Nuland comments in any other way?

NELSON: Well, there's certainly concern about what impact this might have on the much-anticipated trans-Atlantic trade deal for which there are talks that are going to go on again next month. The concern is, in particular, that Europe is going to be demanding data privacy protection measures that the Americans won't likely be willing to provide.

MONTAGNE: Soraya, thanks very much.

NELSON: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, speaking to us from Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.