Defence minister justifies spying: "What should a state do when someone declares independence?"

Margarita Robles's words provoke a political earthquake and leaves a question mark over Sanchez's relationship with the parties which support him

3 min

Madrid"What should a state do when someone violates the Constitution? What should it do when someone declares independence? When someone cuts public roads? Carries out public disorder? When someone has relations with political leaders of a country that is invading Ukraine?" The Minister of Defence, Margarita Robles, had been biting her tongue throughout the control session, but she has let loose in response to CUP deputy Mireia Vehí and justified spying on about sixty Catalan independence leaders. The minister has accused independence supporters of not being equally sensitive with other cases of espionage. "When job centres' websites are hacked, preventing workers from being paid, or ministers' mobiles I have not heard you say anything. It is hypocrisy on your part. It suits you very well at the moment to appear as victims, but I have never seen you defend the basic principles of the rule of law", said Robles.

These declarations have provoked a political earthquake and have destroyed all PSOE's attempts to rebuild the relationship with the pro-independence parties whose support it needs in parliament, and could spark a major government crisis. In fact, the faces of some of Robles' fellow ministers, such as María Jesús Montero, showed that they were aware of the impact that these words could have. Robles has not only shown no willingness to clarify espionage, but has questioned it and has gone on the attack accusing the independentistas of having things to hide. "Where is the evidence? Present the evidence," she told Aitor Esteban, of the Basque Nationalist Party. "I'm proud of the CNI, of all its public servants," she concluded. It is difficult to think that Robles's continuity in government is compatible with the support of pro-independence parties and even of Unidas Podemos.

Reactions have not been long in coming. The spokeswoman for Junts, Miriam Nogueras, accused Robles of justifying spying: "At the fourth question she has given herself away. The scandal is bigger than ever," she said. Both Mireia Vehí and ERC MP Marta Rosique tweeted along similar lines.

Some Unidas Podemos MPs have also felt very uncomfortable with these statements and are aware that continued support from Nationalist parties is at risk. In fact, Catalan president Pere Aragonès demanded the minister resign. On the other hand, sources from the Ministry of Defence emphasize that it is not only the CNI which has access to the Pegasus program, thus pointing to other state security bodies.

Sánchez speaks out

Minutes before, the president of the Spanish government had spoken for the first time since the outbreak of the crisis. Pedro Sánchez did not go off script and backed his Minister of Defence, Margarita Robles. "Everything that has been done at the CNI has been in scrupulous compliance with the law", Sánchez responded to the Republican spokesman, Gabriel Rufian. However, the Spanish president has defended that the Spanish government has the will to clarify the facts and has highlighted the decision to open an internal investigation at the CNI and to provide all the information to the Ombudsman: "Few precedents exist", he has reiterated.

The ERC spokesman argued that the question is not whether or not it has been spied on, which he has taken for granted, but to know who ordered it: "If it was you it is terribly serious, but if it was not you it is even more serious, because it means that you have not cleaned the state sewers, and when they are not cleaned they get filled with rats that eat everything". Sánchez meanwhile asked for confidence in a government that has tried to overcome the crises of 2017 and 2019 in Catalonia through dialogue: "I would ask you to rebuild trust in favour of reunion," he said.

Decree on Ukraine

The problem is that this trust is right now at a minimum, especially after episodes such as that of the Minister of Defence. The crisis between Sánchez and his partners remains, therefore, open just 24 hours before a crucial vote in the Spanish Parliament, where measures to counter the effects of the war in Ukraine will be put to the vote. Yesterday both ERC and other parties that usually back the government refused to say whether they would be voting in favour.

On the other hand, PP spokeswoman Cuca Gamarra urged Sánchez to choose between them and their partners when passing the decree. "Won't you have even a minute to talk to us?", Gamarra asked him. The PSOE, then, has 24 hours to recover relations with its partners or approach the PP. If the latter were to happen, it would mean a change of course and would leave the relationship of the PSOE with its government partner, Unidas Podemos, very damaged. It could also, evidently, mean the definitive break between the Generalitat and the Spanish government and the end of the dialogue table. The next few hours, then, will be key.