Spain: PSOE struggling to supress stench of ‘Catalangate’

May 5, 2022
Defence minister Margarita Robles admitted on April 28 to the use of Pegasus spyware against Catalan independentist leaders. Photo: Casa de América/Flickr

The scandal of electronic eavesdropping on 65 leaders of the Catalan independence movement by Spain’s National Intelligence Centre (CNI) — dubbed “Catalangate” by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, which uncovered it — shows signs of becoming a long-running soap opera.

At the end of the first episode — nine days after the scandal broke with the April 18 publication of a New Yorker exposé — defence minister Margarita Robles, in charge of the CNI, was refusing on national security grounds to confirm or deny Citizen Lab’s findings.

Pedro Sánchez, her Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) prime minister, had not even risked public comment on the case.

However, in the second episode, beginning on April 28 with Robles and Sánchez facing question time in the Spanish Congress, the defence minister suddenly spilled the beans about the CNI’s use of Pegasus spyware against Catalan independentist leaders:

“What’s a state supposed to do when someone violates the constitution? What is it to do when someone declares independence? When someone blocks public thoroughfares? Provokes public disturbances? When someone has relations with the political leaders of a country that is invading Ukraine? [a reference to figures around former Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont]?”

Conflicting theories sprouted in the media as to what had caused Robles’ surprise confirmation of CNI’s espionage.

One was that she had “lost it” under the pressure of questioning, especially from insistent Catalan People’s Unity List (CUP) MP Mireia Vehí, whose interrogation preceded Robles’ eruption.

Another was that Robles’ admission of CNI eavesdropping was no spontaneous outburst at all, but a calculated move to make it impossible for Sánchez to sack her as defence minister.

Removing Robles would pit the prime minister against Spain’s “deep state”, to which the CNI is integral.

Sánchez scrapes home

Whatever the truth, Roble’s declaration brought relations between Spanish and Catalan governments to breaking point. It also ended any chance that the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), the Catalan party most inclined to support the PSOE against the parties of the right, might continue in that line.

Immediately Robles’ statement became known, Pere Aragonès, Catalonia’s ERC premier, demanded her resignation as she is “politically disabled from continuing in her position”.

The following day, the 13 ERC Congress MPs voted against confirming in law the Sánchez government’s package of emergency economic measures to counter the impact of the Russian war on Ukraine.

The package passed by just four votes (176-172) after Sánchez cancelled a trip to Poland and Moldova so he could round up minor party support.

The opposition People’s Party (PP) voted against — on the pretext that it did not include a cut in petrol tax — as did the xenophobic Vox, Citizens, and all Catalan parties except the Catalan European Democratic Party.

The package was saved by the votes of the PSOE, its junior governing partner Unidas Podemos (UP), Podemos split-off More Country, and the combined votes of the Basque parties and regionalist forces.

The votes of five MPs of the Basque left-independentist EH Bildu were key: they relieved the pressure on the ERC MPs to vote for measures they would have supported in other circumstances.

Outrage in Catalonia

In the Catalan parliament on the same day, outrage at “Catalangate” forced the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC, the PSOE’s Catalan franchise) to vote with the pro-independence parties and Together We Can (ECP, affiliate of UP in the Spanish Congress) on a resolution condemning the eavesdropping.

The right-wing Spanish unionist parties were in violent opposition to it. “If you people break the constitutional consensus, the least the CNI can do is intervene in the affair,” said Citizens leader Carlos Carrizosa.

Yet, the PSOE and PSC continue to oppose having an open Congress inquiry into the scandal.

The most the PSOE conceded was that membership of the Congress’s official secrets commission (the “Reserved Expenditures Commission”) would be decided by simple majority and not the 60% that had hitherto allowed the right wing to block “secessionists” from having a seat at its table.

The April 29 session of Congress saw members of ERC, Together for Catalonia and the CUP elected to the commission.

However, despite outrage from the right-wing parties at these “enemies of Spain” entering an “inner sanctum” committee, they are unlikely to discover much in its sessions and are sworn to secrecy as to its proceedings.

In the words of Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) spokesperson and past commission member Aitor Esteban: “If you think the Reserved Expenditures Commission is going to solve the problem, you’re mistaken.”

Catalan premier Aragonès added: “The level of information there is very basic and doesn’t allow access to the kind of detail we need to know about the case.

”The ERC’s position remains that heads must roll as a result of a proper investigation.”

In the May 3 session of Congress, the PSOE reaffirmed its opposition to an open Congress investigation of “Catalangate”. It voted with the PP, Vox and Citizens to veto the proposal, which won the support of the Basque, Catalan, Galician and Valencian parties along with UP and More Country.

‘Me Too’

That vote came the day after another twist in the drama of “Catalangate”.

Spain was treated to a special news conference on May 2, by minister of state Félix Bolaños, who revealed that Sánchez and Robles had also had their mobile phones invaded by Pegasus! The politicians most responsible for Spain’s security had become victims of cyber spooks, just like the 65 Catalans.

This revelation, which pointed to the Moroccan secret service as most likely suspect (because the snooping took place at the time of the May 2021 “invasion” of Ceuta) had been known to the National Cryptological Centre for some time.

Now, however, it was judged useful for the PSOE to make it public — and without informing its UP partner beforehand.

Spain’s mainstream media immediately came on board to play their usual supportive role, with headlines implying that “Catalangate” wasn’t anything but a minor part of a bigger pandemic of cyber espionage — a "Spaingate” or even a“Europegate”.

After all, hadn’t French president Emanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel also had their mobiles invaded, in Merkel’s case by friendly ally, the United States?

The PSOE had changed its defence perimeter again, and EH Bildu senator Jon Iñarritu analysed its method:

“They [the PSOE] don’t behave in the same way when denouncing attacks on what is theirs. They are quite clear that in their case it was an external attack, but in the case of the [Catalan] independentists the government has had three successive strategies: first denial, then admitting to part of the business, but saying it was legal and only involved a few cases, and finally putting the whole focus on its own case and forgetting about everything else.”

War on all fronts

It is increasingly unlikely that the PSOE’s approach will succeed, for the following reasons:

First, the Catalan snooping victims are launching a gamut of legal suits, which will guarantee ongoing publicity. The Catalan government has decided to appeal to the relevant courts to make itself a party to all these suits.

Secondly, the Catalan parliament has voted to launch its own commission of investigation: even if the relevant figures in the Spanish government and “deep state” refuse to appear before it, the political message will be telling.

Thirdly, “Catalangate” and the use of Pegasus is already an issue in the European Parliament. A specific commission has been set up to investigate its use and most speakers at a May 4 plenary denounced cyber espionage as a violation of the European Union’s founding principles.

Fourthly, without ERC support the PSOE-UP government will continue to face borderline votes that could go against it at any time.

Fifthly, among the parties to the left of the PSOE, fear of a PP-Vox victory at an early election — the PSOE’s main weapon of blackmail against them — is waning.

Sensing the PSOE’s vulnerability, UP minister Ione Belarra broke ranks on May 4, and said she was certain that the CNI had targeted Catalan leaders illegally, while Aragonès told a business conference that relations between the Catalan and Spanish government were at a critical turning point.

What will Sánchez say when he makes the Congress appearance that was forced on him by a May 3 vote of spokespersons of all parties except the PSOE and UP?

[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]

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