Today, members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted in favour of a resolution to drop charges against Edward Snowden, who is currently wanted by the US under charges defined by the ‘Espionage Act’.
Hearing reports EU just voted 285-281, overcoming huge pressure, to cancel all charges against me and prevent extradition. Game-changer.
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) October 29, 2015
While this must feel like a relief to Snowden, who has been holed up somewhere in Russia since 2013, it is by no means a green light for him to start looking at condos on the French Riviera.
The vote, which was an extremely close 285-281 is not as concrete as people might think it is. The vote was merely a suggestion instead of a binding law, thanks to Europe’s hugely convoluted legal system.
If you want to know more about what kind of hot mess this place, CP Grey has an excellent tutorial.
The vote says Europe should, “grant him protection and consequently prevent extradition or rendition by third parties, in recognition of his status as whistle-blower and international human rights defender”.
However, every European country that voted has its own extradition treaty with the US. That means that they all have a binding law that means they’re not really allowed to harbor people who the US believes should stand trial. Between April 2007 and May 2014, America asked Britain to send 41 of its citizens to stand trial, and it duly obliged in sending 28 of them. However, there are caveats (see Gary McKinnon)
While McKinnon was caught mucking around with computers and in some cases even breaking them, the size and magnitude of what Snowden did makes McKinnon look like a child accidentally deleted his dad’s emails. Daniel Castro, a senior analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation predicted that the United States cloud computing industry could lose $35 billion by 2016 as a result of Snowden’s actions.
In addition, the UK wants Snowden after he spilt the beans on what GCHQ (the country’s equivalent of the CIA) gets up to when no-one is looking.
Other countries have similar interests in teaching Snowden a lesson. There is also a rich tapestry of asterisks and caveats when it comes to EU member states prosecuting people under EU, or its own law. In the UK for example, the British courts are not required to follow the judgements of the European Court of Human Rights blindly, they must only “take account” of the UK’s own laws and traditions.
Another further complication is Snowden’s status as a US citizen. Extradition laws tend to focus on citizens of the country that protects them. Snowden is an American, which makes the argument to keep him in an EU member state a bit murkier.
But perhaps the biggest tell that no one is going to offer Snowden a place to stay is America’s ability to lean on individual countries when it wants things to happen. When Russia decided to invade Ukraine, America flew in Joe Biden to quietly pull the strings with individual leaders of Europe to be tougher on sanctions. It was a classic example of how the long-arm of American foreign policy still has sway among the politicians of Europe.
Snowden, I’m happy for you, but don’t start packing your bags anytime soon.