Marcel Kolaja: “The main political groups are doing all they can to thwart a fact-finding mission to Spain”

An interview with Marcel Kolaja, a Czech MEP, a member of the Bureau of the European Parliament and the Pegasus Commission, on Catalangate’s impact in Brussels

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Picture by Gaelle Lewyllie / European Pirate Party
Josep Casulleras Nualart
03.11.2022 - 10:03

Marcel Kolaja (Moravská Třebová, Czech Republic, 1980) was sat next to the Ciudadanos MEP Jordi Cañas some weeks ago, during the notorious session of the European Parliament’s Pegasus committee in which the Catalan MEPs who were the victims of Pegasus spyware addressed the meeting. Jeroen Lenaers, the Chair of the committee had to intervene during outbursts by Cañas and Spain’s former Minister of the Interior, Juan Ignacio Zoido. Kolaja expressed his shock during our interview: “I’d never seen anything like it in the European Parliament”.

Today we interview one of the European Pirate Party’s most influential politicians, since, as a former Vice-President of the European Parliament, and as a Quaestor, he is part of the Bureau of the Parliament, its governing body. A member of the Greens-EFA group, Kolaja serves on the Pegasus committee and he has visited Poland in that capacity. He is critical of the fact that they have vetoed a mission to Spain as a result of pressure from the majority groups.

What do you think of Zoido, of his outbursts and those of Jordi Cañas, when Puigdemont, Comín, Riba and Solé gave evidence after being targeted by Pegasus?
—I’d never seen anything like it in the European Parliament. It was as if we were discussing internal Spanish politics, with accusations being bandied about that the Catalan politicians were using the inquiry for their own political ends. Which explains why Zoido called into question the evidence collected by Citizen Lab. I’d never experienced this in parliament, and it went totally against the session’s intended purpose, which was to verify facts, to get a better understanding of the situation. Unfortunately, they interfered with the session. It was as if MEPs could decide on something like Catalan independence. But that wasn’t the case. I was incredibly disappointed with how the session turned out, as it was the complete opposite of what ought to have happened.

How come the committee haven’t questioned Zoido, if he was Spain’s Minister of the Interior at the time when Pegasus was being used?
—It’s an interesting question [long pause]. It seems to me that this would require a more systematic approach, because I don’t think it’s possible to approach an individual and say: ‘come on, you have to testify’, or ‘we have to question you’. This would call for cooperation from the Spanish authorities, which we really do not have. And we would also need a majority in the European Parliament, which we also don’t have right now. And, besides, what could you honestly expect from an MEP’s testimony? As we saw when the Catalan MEPs testified, when they obstructed it in that way, what do you expect to get from a session like that? It’s highly likely it’d be a waste of time.

Zoido was the head of the Spanish police. And there’s evidence that even back then they were using it against Catalan activists. Which is why he ought to appear in order to say what he knew about the use of this spyware. It’s quite something, the fact that he held such a post and he also serves on the Pegasus committee.
—I can see that, but it seems to me that there’s no legal means to stop him from being part of the inquiry.

Are you satisfied with what the Pegasus committee has done and what it’s achieved over the last six months?
—The work’s not finished yet. And the result will be a report which I hope will include recommendations and steps that should be taken in the future. After a year and a half, I’m satisfied because we’ve undertaken many of these important fact-finding missions, and in Poland I think we had a good exchange of ideas with the people we were able to talk to. Of course, I’m not happy that the Polish government didn’t want to cooperate, and I’m extremely unhappy that I can’t go on a fact-finding mission to Spain. We’ll see if that’ll change in the future, but considering the makeup of parliament, the chances aren’t good. But the situation in Spain is serious enough to warrant such a fact-finding mission.

What did you find out in Poland?
—During the mission to Poland, it became clear, after having spoken with experts and with the victims, that the purchase of Pegasus by the Polish government was illegal because it was funded with monies that shouldn’t have been used for such activities. The money they used to buy it ought to have been spent on the victims of crime.

They covered up the purchase.
—And they did something that went beyond intercepting communications with this money: they got into people’s mobile phones. In other words, the goal was unlawful, not just the source of the money. Although there were court orders, it was clear that the judges didn’t know what they were authorising. Because we have to understand that we’re not talking about a simple phone tap: it’s spyware that gets installed on a device, which can be controlled, from which any data can be obtained. It goes much further: it’s about trawling through a person’s digital life. It soon became clear that the scale of the scandal is enormous. There are dozens of cases that we know about, but we don’t really know how many people are affected and we haven’t found out about them yet. The victims don’t really know what data has been collected from their phones, and they haven’t been officially told what really happened. There was no oversight as to the use of this technology. If there was any sort of supervision, it was purely for appearances’ sake.

The government refused to meet with you.
—We could have reached more concrete conclusions, in addition to what I’ve just told you, if we’d been able to talk with them. But they didn’t want to meet with us, and in actual fact that’s illegal because member states are obliged to cooperate with the European parliament’s investigative committees. That’s why I’m particularly concerned.

There are many similarities with the Pegasus case in Spain.
—The problem is that no fact-finding mission is planned for Spain. Those that have been planned, in addition to Poland, are to Hungary, Israel, the United States and Greece. And I find it extremely problematic that the major political groups in the European Parliament are doing all they can to thwart the fact-finding mission to Spain. We’re talking about the European People’s Party Group, where there’s the Spanish PP; the Socialist Group, which includes Spain’s PSOE; and the Renew Europe Group, where there’s Ciudadanos. They’re doing anything they can to stop it from going ahead.

What do you mean by “anything they can? What are they doing?
—For a fact-finding mission like this to go ahead, you need a political majority that wants it. And since these three groups are in the majority, if they oppose the proposal to send a mission to Spain, they can effectively block it. And that’s what they are doing: they are preventing any kind of agreement which involves sending a mission to Spain.

Your group did propose it, however.
—Yes, we’re at the opposite end of the political spectrum because we believe that sending a mission to Spain is necessary, and we can’t see any justification for not doing so. In fact, it’s outrageous that missions are being sent to every member state where Pegasus has been used, except for Spain. It doesn’t make any sense.

What kind of excuse have they given you?
—There’s no valid excuse for not going ahead with a fact-finding mission.

A key issue is how Pegasus was paid for, as it’s very expensive. In Poland, this was done by fiddling with the budget. Do you think anything similar might have happened in Spain, considering the size of the case? Do you have any idea how it might have been paid for?
—I don’t want to speculate on how they did it. Which is why the mission to Spain is so important. How can we find out what really happened without going there? I joined the mission to Poland, and we had the opportunity to spend many hours interviewing the experts, the victims over three days. And we were able to get an idea of ​​what had happened. Yes, it would’ve been better to be able to talk to the government, but if we hadn’t even been able to go there, it would’ve been very difficult to learn anything.

The attempt to stop the trip to Spain is also suspicious.
—Yes, this does nothing but raise more suspicions: why does the Polish government not want to talk to us? Why do the Spanish political parties, in the largest groups in the European Parliament, oppose a fact-finding mission to Spain? All this does nothing but raise suspicions.

These Spanish parties are trying to ensure that Spain is not seen in the same light as Poland and Hungary. Did you get that impression?
—What gives the whole thing an interesting dimension is that, for example, Mr Zoido, who was Minister of the Interior at the time when Pegasus was used in Spain, is one of the MEPs serving on the Pegasus committee. And he was also part of the fact-finding mission to Poland, where he raised no objections to the evidence presented by Citizen Lab. And, lo and behold, when the committee debated what had happened in Spain, Mr Zoido called into question Citizen Lab’s claims that Pegasus spyware had been installed on Diana Riba, Jordi Solé and other MEPs’ mobile phones. He even questioned whether there was sufficient evidence to prove that they’d been victims of spying. I find it totally contradictory, which only leads to the suspicion that there must be something political behind it: why on the one hand there’s no problem with the proof in Poland, while on the other it’s called into question with regard to Spain?

The PSOE, the main partner in the Spanish coalition government, has also questioned the reliability of Citizen Lab’s evidence, like Zoido did.
—The steps the Spanish government have taken in terms of this scandal are rather worrying. Didier Reynders, the European Commissioner for Justice, sent a letter to Poland, Hungary, Spain and Greece expressing concern about the Pegasus scandal and asking for information. Spain is the only state that hasn’t sent a reply. It doesn’t look like the Spanish government is interested in cooperating. The Spanish authorities aren’t really cooperating with the Pegasus committee, just like the Polish government. And this is a problem, and the slow pace of the probe in Spain is worrying. We’ve reached the conclusion that the scandal is two-fold, as on the one hand we have the case of the Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, and on the other that of the Catalan politicians. I find this troubling, too.

How should Commissioner Reynders respond to the Catalans who were victims of espionage after receiving the official complaint from President Pere Aragonès?
—The European Commission should insist that the case be investigated, and that the authorities collaborate. The Spanish government’s failure to reply is just one more piece in the puzzle. The Commission has instruments to deal with cases in which member states fail to fulfil their obligations to treaties. I hope that the Commission decides to take steps against these governments that refuse to cooperate in the investigation of an affair such as this one, by using the mechanisms at its disposal. That it takes action when member states don’t fulfil their obligations. This is what I expect from Commissioner Reynders.

What are the Commission’s mechanisms you’re referring to?
—He could take the case to the Court of Justice of the EU. It would be the last resort, because you usually try to talk to a non-compliant member state. If it definitely doesn’t want to cooperate, the Commission should take the case up with the CJEU.

But the Commission hasn’t. Why not?
—It’s a good question, but I can’t answer it. You’d need to ask the Commission.

It seems clear that Spain has relegated the Pegasus case to the European institutions: the European Parliament and the Commission. And this, seen from Catalonia, is frustrating.
—In the case of the European Parliament, it’s true, as I mentioned earlier, there’s the role of the main groups. But I don’t agree with the statement regarding the European Commission, as the Commission has hardly done anything in relation to Poland, where its government has also refused to cooperate. It seems instead as if the Commission is negligent in relation to the scandal as a whole, whatever country is involved. I understand the perception, but as far as the Pegasus scandal is concerned, the negligence is general rather than specific to one individual country.

How does an activist concerned with internet censorship end up being Vice-President of the European Parliament?
—It was a natural progression, as I started as an activist in 2003, before the Czech Republic was even a member of the EU. But at that time there was a proposal in the EU to go ahead with software patents which I strongly opposed, since I’m interested in open source software. So I joined the international movement to be able to fight this battle, and in 2005, when the European parliament rejected the proposal, I became active in the Czech Republic in a movement which wanted to found and organize open cities which connect to each other, using free, open-source software to move towards a more transparent and democratic society. And I became a member of the Pirate Party in 2010 because I found that it was the only one which focused on the critical issues for the future. The party gained more support and we were able to enter the Czech parliament, and subsequently the European Parliament. I headed the ballot in the 2019 elections and I got elected.

And as a member of the Bureau of the European Parliament, how do you explain that an individual like Alessandro Chiocchetti has become Secretary-General?
—The Secretary-General is elected by the Bureau, and the Bureau elects the Secretary-General in accordance with the existing majorities. The biggest problem with choosing someone is that the selection process is not transparent at all. Apparently the majority groups reached some kind of an agreement, though this time it seems like the Socialists weren’t involved. The deal included the PP, Renew, the ECR (Conservatives and Reformists) and the Left. They formed a kind of bloc that negotiated a package that included not only the Secretary-General, but also other top officials. There was a new Directorate General position created for the sole purpose of finding a place for the Left’s candidate. I don’t know how this ought to be changed, but I think I’ve answered your question.

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