Executive Interview

Amid Spreading Spy Scandal, Top Ford Europe Manager Takes Diplomatic Role

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Bernhard Mattes is the head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany. His paying job is as head of Ford in Germany.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    U.S.-German relations have deteriorated following the arrests of alleged moles within German intelligence services who were reportedly working for Washington. The controversy has thrust a top Ford Europe executive, Bernhard Mattes, into the role of reluctant diplomat.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Mr. Mattes regrets the damage done by the U.S. spy scandal, but said it won’t hinder passage of a transatlantic trade pact.
    • Germans and Americans have very different views when it comes to security, privacy and data protection.
    • The U.S. government is only slowly realizing how angry the German government and the public are over U.S. spying.
  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf

As the Ford Motor Co.’s top man in Germany, Bernhard Mattes oversees about 25,000 employees at four locations and annual sales of €6.4 billion ($8.6 billion). Yet the chairman of Ford in Germany is a sought-after interview subject because of his honorary office.

Mr. Mattes, 58, is the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany, which with 3,000 members is Europe’s largest bilateral business association. He’s been thrust into a quasi-diplomatic function, mediating between Washington, D.C. and Berlin in the wake of the spying scandal that has frayed relations between the long-time allies. This comes at a time when he’s also playing a leading role in negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a trade agreement between the European Union and the United States that would remove trade barriers in a wide range of economic sectors.

He answered a series of questions in a recent interview.

Handelsbatt: Negotiations are proceeding slowly and only making painstaking progress. The spy affairs have raised a lot of reservations about America in Germany. Do you still think the deal will be made?

Bernhard Mattes: Absolutely, the TTIP will succeed. And it must succeed by the end of next year, otherwise, we will get into the presidential elections in the United States and, after that, into the German federal election campaign. Then, it would be difficult.

“You don’t wiretap friends. It just isn’t done.”

Bernhard Mattes, Head of Ford in Germany and the American Chamber of Commerce

You were elected chamber president on the day the world first learned about the National Security Agency’s widespread spying from whistleblower Edward Snowden. Are you only in demand as a crisis manager?

I am president of AmCham Germany and it is doing fine, but in that respect, I am no crisis manager. Naturally, I am often confronted with questions about the NSA affair and I get involved in discussions when I can contribute something. We regret what has happened on the political level and hope that trust and respect can be rebuilt over time.

But how?

There are two central points: When I respect someone, I do not act behind his or her back. You don’t wiretap friends. It just isn’t done. Besides that, it is very important to find out what actually happened. Both sides should come to a political agreement that regulates these issues.

Have companies left the chamber because of the turmoil?

No. We should keep political and economic issues separate as much as possible. Naturally, the tension is the subject of discussion among our members, but it does not interfere with their business planning. Many German companies still want to ramp up their investments in the United States, as BASF recently announced. By the same token, American companies like General Electric Co. are trying to gain a firmer foothold in Europe. This shows that transatlantic economic ties are flourishing.

Which cannot be said of the political ties. Why is the U.S. government having such a hard time reacting to German outrage over the spy affairs?

I was recently in Washington and got the impression that American politicians are more and more coming to understand why the Germans reacted with such anger. That doesn’t yet mean that they condone it, but there is a different understanding of security, privacy and data protection prevailing in the United States than here in Germany. The role of the government is also seen completely differently.

In your opinion, where did the American services really overstep their bounds?

The boundary is crossed when individual people like Chancellor Angela Merkel are wiretapped. That is unacceptable. Edward Snowden also has claimed the NSA passes on company data to competitors, but this has been denied by the U.S. government.

Do you believe that?

One must differentiate. The NSA has collected as much company data as possible, but it only looks more closely if something suspicious happens. . .like when a company suddenly delivers things in large amounts to a politically sensitive country, things that might possibly be used in the production of weapons. That is in everyone’s interest. But we have never heard any indication from (American) companies that secret information, such as development plans, have been extracted and passed on to competitors.

American companies like Google are now being treated more aggressively. Is this debate bad for business?

We can’t tell at the moment. It is correct that a number of American IT companies have taken a very clear position against the U.S. government. In addition, all companies must respect the privacy of personal data. We just have to watch out that we don’t hamstring or prevent the development of groundbreaking trends in the Internet.

TTIP is very important for the German economy, but opposition is growing among the German people. Shouldn’t prominent representatives of business promote the partnership in a concentrated campaign?

I can only encourage my colleagues to make their views known. We as businesses can advertise more for its passage. It is also important to me that a common market be presented not only as a benefit to businesses but also, and especially, to consumers. They would gain a wider selection, more innovation and additional skilled jobs. And, I am equally sure that we will neither have to give up our high standards of protection, nor reduce employee protection rights.

Thank you for the interview.

The interview was conducted by Till Hoppe and Thomas Tuma.

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