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Joaquín Almunia attacks UK and US over phone tapping claims

Joaquín Almunia attacks UK and US over phone tapping claims

By Alex Barker in Brussels

Europe’s top competition enforcer has scolded Britain and the US for failing to apologise or address claims that his phone was tapped by their intelligence services.

In his first comments on the spying incident since the allegations emerged in December, Joaquín Almunia said he was “surprised” to have been targeted and even more angered by the lack of official response.

“I’m deeply upset, not only because I have received no explanation or regret but also because I believe as a democrat that these activities should be illegal,” he told reporters.

The claims are extremely awkward for Britain, as they for the first time implicate London in directly tapping the phone of a senior EU official or politician. Mr Almunia was one of Britain’s best allies in the commission and is overseeing critical UK cases, including the approval of the new nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point.

As competition commissioner, Mr Almunia has one of the most commercially sensitive briefs in Brussels, prompting speculation that the eavesdropping was economic espionage for the benefit of domestic companies.

However, on Wednesday he said that reporters investigating the incident showed him a timeline of tapping that revealed the incidents occurred under his previous role as the EU’s economics and monetary affairs commissioner.

This left Mr Almunia “even more surprised” because the US and UK could have easily listened to his frequent public statements to hear his views on the EU economy. He said the activities “cannot be justified”.

Mr Almunia covered the economics portfolio until 2010 – during which time the first signs emerged of the dire economic problems facing Greece, which went on to require two eurozone bailouts.

The European Commission reacted furiously last month and singled out British involvement, saying it was “not the type of behaviour that we expect from strategic partners, let alone our own member states”.

The claims come as part of a joint investigation by the Guardian, Der Spiegel and the New York Times based on revelations from documents dated from 2008 to 2011 and leaked by Edward Snowden, the former US National Security Agency contractor.

The Guardian reported that British and US intelligence agencies had a list of surveillance targets including Mr Almunia, German government buildings in Berlin and overseas, and charities working Africa.

An EU summit in October was overshadowed by a diplomatic storm over US eavesdropping on Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor. After the meeting, Mr Cameron hit back at “la-di-da, airy fairy” critics of Britain’s “brave” spies. He declined to answer whether Britain helped collect or received information gleaned from taps on Ms Merkel’s phone.

A British official declined to comment on intelligence issues or Mr Almunia’s comments. Last month President Barack Obama acknowledged that the US “would have to provide more confidence to the international community” about its spying.