Pegasus: EU in need to step up as a citizens’ rights guarantor against state abuse
For many EU citizens who do not align with their member states’ interests, the EU is a higher level of authority that can guarantee their rights. The Union must step up to this expectation and fulfil its role as a safeguard of rights – not least to strengthen people’s trust in the institutions
If there is one thing that gives the EU its legitimacy, it is its commitment to democratic principles. The EU, we are told, is a union of values: the values outlined in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union, not least democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights.
One would assume that this includes the right of political activists in EU member states to pursue their goals without unwarranted state interference. After all, spying on one’s own citizens is something more readily associated with totalitarian secret police, like the East German Stasi, than with modern, supposedly democratic, EU member states.
Unfortunately, recent events have proved otherwise. The Pegasus spyware case is one of the biggest scandals to hit European politics in recent years. Reports from reputable independent actors, especially the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, have identified that several EU member states have used Pegasus spyware – developed by the Israeli NSO Group – to illegally spy on citizens. In particular, they have targeted political opponents of the ruling governments, lawyers and journalists.
Much of the focus of the spying cases has been on Hungary and Poland – countries that have been engaged in rule of law disputes with the European institutions for several years – and on Greece, which has recently been engulfed in a political scandal relating to espionage on opposition politicians. But slipping through the cracks is Spain, supposedly a ‘good’ Western European democracy, but actually the place where the extent of Pegasus operations in Europe first came to light when Citizen Lab revealed that at least 65 Catalan and Basque pro-independence politicians, lawyers and journalists had been victims of cyber-espionage.
The scandal is far from just a member state issue. It reaches far into the European institutions: the list of targeted leaders includes EFA MEPs Jordi Solé and Diana Riba, and raises further concern among European authorities as the surveillance could affect other public representatives in constant contact with the targeted MEPS.
This scandalous situation demonstrates the urgent need for the EU to step up as the safeguard of citizens’ rights when they face state abuse. The illegal use of spyware by member states directly violates core European values, exposing the willingness of some EU member states to spy on citizens who do not align themselves with their states’ interests – a direct threat to democracy and the right of opposition voices to be heard.
This directly affects the politicians, lawyers and journalists who have been placed under surveillance. But it also indirectly affects their voters, clients and readers.
How should the EU react?
In recent years the EU has often faced the challenge of ensuring member state compliance with its core principles. Its inability to meaningfully enforce its values risks a loss of trust in European institutions. It is crucial that the EU reacts firmly and decidedly to fulfil its role as the arbiter of democracy within its borders – not only in Hungary and Poland, but everywhere where EU values are threatened. The response to the Pegasus scandal must be at the EU level – and it must include a deep, serious and impartial investigation that clarifies whether the victims were, as reports indicate, illegally placed surveillance, and identifies those responsible for this cyber-espionage.
For now, the European Parliament has established an inquiry to investigate the use of Pegasus and other spyware (PEGA). Moving forward, citizens deserve to see serious actions and outcomes from this investigation committee. The inquiry should include investigation into all affected countries: this means establishing a fact-finding mission to Spain, replicating those already conducted in Poland and Hungary. Unfortunately, the mission is currently ‘frozen’, with no set date, indicating the Spanish state’s opposition to allowing any investigation despite the widely reported CatalanGate scandal. The EU must not merely bow to the interests of a powerful member state, but must proceed with its investigative agenda and affirm its power to uphold core EU principles.
If these investigations find that member states are guilty of violating their own citizens’ rights, the EU must act strongly against such an internal challenge to its founding principles. It must develop mechanisms so that countries found guilty of anti-democratic actions face severe sanctions, including constraints on access to EU funds until conditions are met to restore – and maintain – compliance with democratic principles.
The establishment of a “rule of law mechanism” to oversee the distribution of EU funds to member states suspected of violating the rule of law is to be welcomed, but should be widened to include all manner of anti-democratic activities in violation of European values. The EU should also develop further mechanisms such as the action protocol against cyber espionage proposed by MEPs Jordi Solé and Diana Riba.
Only in this way can the EU step up as a real guarantor of citizens’ rights against the at times crooked interests of its own member states. If the EU is serious about its defence of European values and citizens’ rights, it must be willing to take action against its own member states when necessary. The Pegasus scandal is only the latest reminder of that.
Follow today’s public hearing of the victims of Pegasus: