BRUSSELS — European Union ambassadors met in Brussels Thursday to find a common stance on explosive allegations of U.S. spying on EU offices, as Germany insisted a huge EU-U.S. trade deal remained the "highest priority."
The snooping claims, revealed by American fugitive Edward Snowden, have sparked outrage across the bloc, casting a pall over long-awaited European and American talks on a free trade deal worth billions expected to give a much-needed boost to the debt-wracked eurozone.
The closed-door discussions between the EU ambassadors are expected to last for hours, senior diplomatic sources said.
They come a day after Berlin and Paris struck a note of discord over how to proceed with the trade talks, with France pushing for a delay while Germany said they should go ahead next week as planned.
EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso eventually announced a compromise: the trade talks would open but run in tandem with working groups tasked with probing the extent of the US spying.
Seeking to limit the fallout from the scandal, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday to address European concerns.
"The president assured the chancellor that the United States takes seriously the concerns of our European allies and partners," according to a readout of the telephone conversation released by Washington.
Merkel's spokesman said she welcomed Obama's announcement that the U.S. would provide information on its surveillance activities, and reiterated that Berlin and Washington were committed to the trade talks.
"The negotiations on the (trade deal) still have highest priority, they are to begin on July 8," Steffen Seibert said in a statement.
Ties between Washington and Brussels have been strained since Snowden, a former contractor with the National Security Agency, revealed that the US was systematically seizing vast amounts of Internet and telephone data around the world.
Reports in the Guardian and Der Spiegel in recent days have detailed widespread covert surveillance by the NSA of EU offices, including diplomatic missions in Washington and at the United Nations in New York, as well as at the 28-member bloc's Brussels headquarters.
The spying row widened on Wednesday after Bolivia accused France, Italy, Portugal and Spain of temporarily denying President Evo Morales's plane overflight rights over suspicions that Snowden was traveling with him.
Morales's plane, returning home from a trip to Moscow, was forced to make an unscheduled stopover in Vienna, where airport police searched the aircraft and confirmed that the fugitive American was not on board.
Morales had earlier said his country would consider giving political asylum to the intelligence leaker, who has been holed up in a Moscow airport.
Bolivia and its regional Latin American allies have responded angrily to the jet diversion, which Morales likened to a "13-hour kidnapping." France has since expressed regret for its role in the incident.
The White House said U.S. and German security officials will hold a "high-level meeting" in the coming days to address intelligence matters, and that a U.S.-EU dialogue on intelligence collection and data protection would begin as early as July 8.
The EU says establishing a Free Trade Agreement would add about 119 billion euros annually to the bloc's economy, and 95 billion euros for the United States, or more than $120 billion.
Trade in goods between the United States and the EU last year was worth some 500 billion euros — about $670 billion— with another 280 billion euros in services and trillions in investment flows.
Snowden is waiting for a country to give him safe haven.
The 30-year-old computer specialist arrived in Moscow from Hong Kong on June 23 in a bid to escape U.S. efforts to have him extradited on espionage charges.
He has filed asylum requests with 21 countries.