11th Dec 2023

Commissioners' no-show at spyware hearing angers MEPs

  • In Greece, the spyware was used against journalists, politicians, and businessmen, and it was also exported to countries 'with poor human rights records' (Photo: EUobserver)
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"Europe is now officially the spyware paradise of the world. Congratulations, Commission," said MEP Sophie in 't Veldt (Renew Europe) during a debate on the latest developments in the use of spyware in the EU at the European Parliament on Thursday (26 October).

The justice committee had invited a number of experts to share their testimonies and explore responses to the continued use of surveillance technologies such the Israeli-manufactured Pegasus system.

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But the main stage was stolen by the missing guest: the EU Commission.

"It's now five months after the [parliament's] recommendation, and we still haven't heard an official response from the commission," said MEP Jeroen Lenaers from the centre-right European People's Party (EPP).

Last June, the special committee set up to investigate the use of spyware in the EU (named PEGA) issued a series of recommendations to restrict its use and sale, following revelations that it had been used against journalists, members of civil society and even top EU officials.

At the time, MEPs called for a common definition of national security so that it could not be used as a justification for blatant abuse, as well as EU rules on its use by law enforcement and under strict conditions.

The use of spyware such as that used by the Israeli NSO group has been detected in member states such as Greece, Spain, Hungary or Poland, targeting different individuals.

In Greece, it was used against journalists, politicians, and businessmen, and exported to countries "with poor human rights records". While in Spain, the spyware targeted Catalan separatists, and in Hungary, it was meant to "destroy media freedom and freedom of expression by the government", MEPs said.

The justice committee is still awaiting an appropriate answer from the commission, which is studying a non-legislative initiative to address the use of spyware in some member states and its export to other countries.

"It's nothing," Lenaers said, referring to the weak response from the EU executive. "We urgently need to find a way for this committee to express our dismay at the commission's behaviour and also to make sure that more efforts are being taken."

The EU commissioners were invited to attend the debate, but neither Didier Reynders nor Věra Jourová showed up, causing not only annoyance among the parliamentarians but also a row between them and the chair of the committee, Juan Fernando López Aguilar, from the centre-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D).

"We had more than one year to contribute to the discussion to the very end with the conclusions [recommendations]. That was the political debate," López Aguilar insisted.

The Spanish socialist asked MEPs to avoid any political statement and focus on the three invited experts, which caused a strong response from various MEPs, but especially from the Belgian Saskia Bricmont (Greens/EFA).

"I think we are still free to have political declarations if we want, to ask the questions that we went, to say what we want," Bricmont replied angrily.

The Green MEP stressed that the role of the parliament is also to scrutinise the action — or inaction — of the EU executive.

"I wanted the commissioners to listen to the experts, to answer to the experts," she pointed out.

MEPs listened to an exiled Russian journalist spied on by Pegasus earlier this year, as well as to Amnesty International and the president of the Hellenic Authority for Communication Security and Privacy (ADAE).

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