Spanish premier faces crunch economic vote amid anger over spying affair

Defence minister appears to justify mass surveillance of Catalan leaders

A scandal over allegations of spying on Catalan independence leaders has raised the possibility of the Spanish government facing a parliamentary rebellion on Thursday as it attempts to push through emergency economic measures.

In March, the leftist coalition administration of Pedro Sánchez unveiled a €16 billion package aimed at mitigating the impact of the war in Ukraine on the Spanish economy. It included tax cuts and a 20-cent discount on every litre of fuel Spaniards buy. Congress must now retroactively approve the measures in order for them to remain in effect.

Inflation hit 10 per cent last month, the highest rate Spain has seen for 37 years, driven by a spike in fuel and energy costs caused by the Russian invasion.

However, Mr Sánchez’s ability to ensure the parliamentary support needed has been shaken by revelations last week that more than 60 individuals linked to the Catalan independence movement had allegedly been the targets of a mass surveillance programme, mostly through Israeli-made Pegasus spyware. They included the current president of Catalonia, Pere Aragonès, several of his predecessors, MEPs and national legislators. The claims were made by The Citizen Lab, a research centre associated with the University of Toronto.


Mr Aragonès, whose Catalan Republican Left party (ERC) is a parliamentary ally of the coalition government, has demanded a swift response from Mr Sánchez, including an investigation and the holding-to-account of those responsible. He has identified the CNI intelligence agency as being to blame.

Heated affair

The Spanish government's initial insistence that it was unaware of any illegal activity failed to satisfy Mr Aragonès and other Catalan nationalists. On Wednesday the debate surrounding the affair became even more heated when defence minister Margarita Robles appeared to justify the alleged espionage during a debate in congress.

“What does a state have to do, what does a government have to do, when somebody violates the constitution, when somebody declares independence, when somebody blocks roads, causes public disorder?” Ms Robles said, in reference to a failed secession bid led by the Catalan government in 2017.

Catalan nationalist parties were among those who took this as an admission that the Spanish government had known about and endorsed the spying.

Mr Aragonès demanded the minister’s resignation, saying that her comments disqualified her “from managing the worst spying scandal for decades”.

Podemos, the junior partner in the Spanish government, has expressed its "amazement" at Ms Robles's words, with the party's parliamentary spokesman Pablo Echenique warning that "heads must roll".

Mr Sánchez has a narrow parliamentary majority and if ERC were to vote against his economic package on Thursday, he would depend on the support of other, smaller parties, making for a tight result. If his economic package were to be rejected, it would be a major defeat and raise doubts about whether the government can see out the legislature, which is due to end in late 2023.

In February the government only just won a crucial vote, on its reform of labour legislation, after an opposition member of parliament made a mistake during the voting process.

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Spain