What’s the story?

When Catalan President Pere Aragonès met with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez at the annual Cercle d’Economia in Barcelona on May 6, they did not discuss the subject on everyone’s mind – the ongoing scandal surrounding the revelation that over 60 figures within the Catalan independence movement were targeted with spyware.

Despite avoiding mention of "Catalangate" at their first meeting since the espionage allegations were first reported by the Canada-based human rights research organisation Citizen Lab and the New Yorker magazine earlier this month, Aragonès emphasised to the Spanish PM that they needed to speak “urgently”.

That urgency has only grown since Paz Esteban, the head of Spain’s National Intelligence Centre (CNI), admitted that the agency did in fact spy on 18 of the Catalan spyware victims, with the approval of the Spanish Supreme Court.

What did the CNI admit?

Speaking to a congressional official secrets committee on May 5, Esteban said that President Aragonès and several associates of former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont in Belgium were among those targeted by the CNI, with the agreement of Judge Pablo Lucas.

However, this only accounted for 18 of the 60-plus figures named in the Citizen Lab report; the rest of those targeted with spyware were victims of “either a foreign nation or Spanish state bodies that spy beyond their legal possibilities,” Esteban claimed, according to Gabriel Rufián, one of the pro-independence Catalan MPs present the session. 

Esteban also revealed that Judge Lucas signed off on the hacking of certain individuals’ phones due to their potential involvement with the anonymous protest platform Tsunami Democràtic, which aided in the organisation of several demonstrations and the blockade of Barcelona’s airport in 2019, following the conviction of nine Catalan leaders for their involvement in country’s 2017 independence referendum.

Despite claims from the right-wing People’s Party that the espionage was carried out “in a legal manner because it was always authorised by a judge”, the matter is far from settled, particularly as sources from within the Spanish executive have claimed that Pegasus spyware was also used to hack phones belonging to members of the Spanish Government, including the prime minister, defence minister Margarita Robles and interior minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska.

What has been the Catalan reaction?

The scandal had already led to a breakdown in the relationship between the Spanish and Catalan governments, with the latter having suspended all negotiations over the question of independence following Citizen Lab’s initial report on April 18. Poor handling of Catalangate by Pedro Sánchez was, Aragonès said on Wednesday, “blowing up any chances for dialogue and negotiation".

The latest revelations have provoked further anger from the Catalan president, who said: “We demand the immediate declassification of the judicial authorisation so that we can see what its motivation was, and so that we can defend ourselves.

“It is urgent that we receive a public explanation of this issue – we need to know who authorised it politically and who knew about it. And that’s why we demand an answer from the highest level.”

Earlier in the week, Carles Puigdemont – now an MEP with Junts per Catalunya – said during a debate in the European Parliament that “Europe cannot look the other way”, adding that “Pegasus and democracy are not compatible".

Speaking at the same debate, Esquerra Republicana MEP Jordi Solé asked: "How much money has been squandered on spying on me?" he asked.

Will there be a European response?

European Commissioner Johannes Hahn has warned that any state surveillance which takes place within the EU must be legally justifiable, saying: "Member states are competent to guarantee their national security but when doing so they must apply relevant EU law.

"Member states must supervise and control their security services to ensure that they fully respect EU law including fundamental rights such as protection of personal data, the safety of journalists, and freedom of expression."

However, Hahn also said that the European Commission was not “best placed here to investigate individual cases” of espionage, but that it "expects national authorities to thoroughly examine any allegations and to restore citizens' trust,” adding that the EU has a “strong legal framework for data protection and privacy, which prohibits tapping, recording, storing, or other types of interception or monitoring of communications".