BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to reassure Germans on Tuesday that the government was working smoothly despite a spat between her conservatives and their Social Democrat (SPD) coalition partners over the activities of the BND intelligence agency.
The political bickering erupted following allegations that the BND helped the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) to spy on European companies and officials, putting strain on Merkel’s right-left coalition, which has run Europe’s largest economy relatively harmoniously for the past 18 months.
The dispute could hamper policymaking, for example over a trade deal between the European Union and the United States.
SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel has spoken of a “secret services scandal” and said he had pressed Merkel on whether there were further cases of industrial espionage still to be revealed.
Merkel told Germany’s Radio Bremen she would be prepared to answer questions in a German parliamentary inquiry investigating the NSA, but insisted the issue posed no threat to the unity of the coalition, which still has two and a half years to run.
“I will testify and answer questions where necessary and that would be in the parliamentary inquiry if desired - I‘m happy to do that,” she said. “Apart from that we’re working very, very well together in the coalition. You don’t need to worry about that.”
In comments late on Tuesday, Gabriel also sought to play down the spat, saying talk of a coalition crisis was “bizarre”. He also said it was normal for him, as German economy minister, to raise questions on such matters.
Separately, he told broadcaster ZDF that secret services were necessary but they needed to stick to the law and the government should not burden them with demands “they can only fulfil by somehow cooperating with their big brother in the US in a semi-legal zone, perhaps because we don’t sufficiently equip them”.
The issue of BND cooperation with the NSA is sensitive in Germany, where privacy is highly valued after the extensive snooping by the Stasi secret police in Communist East Germany and by the Gestapo in the Nazi era.
Revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about wide-ranging NSA espionage in Germany caused outrage when they first surfaced.
Merkel told Radio Bremen the BND needed to work with the NSA to protect German citizens but added the aim should be to avoid spying among friends.
Austria has filed a legal complaint over suspicions that the BND and the NSA might have spied on its authorities and companies.
Merkel said the government would not, for the time being, provide a list of so-called “selectors” -- IP addresses, search terms and names -- it had been tracking for the NSA. They are at the core of the dispute about whether the BND wrongfully helped the NSA with its spying in Europe.
Gabriel said he expected parliamentarians in the relevant committees would get access to the list of search terms after the chancellery had held the necessary consultations with Washington.
Several senior conservatives attributed Gabriel’s combative stance on the spying affair to SPD jitters over their low poll ratings.
“The convulsive endeavour by Mr Gabriel to draw the chancellor into this ... is a confused attempt by the head of the SPD to break out of its opinion poll rut,” conservative Hans-Peter Uhl told the newspaper Handelsblatt.
An INSA poll showed on Tuesday that Merkel’s conservatives had been untouched by the latest BND scandal, inching up half a point to 41 percent while the SPD was unchanged on 25 percent.
A close Merkel ally, Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, has faced calls to resign but has denied he lied to parliament over the BND’s cooperation with the NSA.
Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke and Holger Hansen; Editing by Gareth Jones, Larry King