Judit Varga's talk about dollar-funded left ridiculous and shameful – chair of Pegasus delegation
February 22. 2023. – 09:42 AM
The Pegasus spy software has been used to monitor many seemingly harmless people, but we have not heard a good explanation as to why – Jeroen Lenaers, head of the European Parliament delegation said, summarising their experiences in Budapest. According to the chairman of the EP's Pegasus committee, the one thing that all those monitored have in common is that they are critical of the government. Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in 't Veld pointed out that such apps are currently the biggest threat to democracy because they are in many ways a means for staying in power for those in positions of authority. The Dutch Liberal MEP sees a risk to national security in the fact that the surveillance warrants were signed by Pál Völner, who has since become implicated in a case of bribery.
The European Parliament's special committee investigated the use of the Pegasus spy software in Hungary on 20-21 February in Budapest. The scandal surrounding the software erupted in July 2021, following articles from an international investigative project involving 17 newspapers, in which Telex's partner Direkt36 took part from Hungary. As it turned out, the smartphone hacking application – which the manufacturer claims is only made available to government agencies – was used in many countries for purposes other than its original purpose (i.e. to expose terrorists and criminals). Instead, it has been used to monitor or attempt to monitor journalists, activists, lawyers and politicians. (Our articles on the subject and Direkt36's coverage can be found here.)
The committee, set up in March 2022, approached the government, among others, with the goal of finding out the reasons for this, but as we wrote in our previous article, Judit Varga refused to meet them. The committee has so far visited four countries, Cyprus, Greece and non-EU member Israel, but the Polish government – like the Hungarian government – has refused to cooperate.
The Justice Minister argued that national security is not an EU competence. According to Jeroen Lenaers, a Dutch member of Fidesz's former party family, the centre-right European People's Party, it is clear from the EU's legal texts that national security cannot be used as a justification for everything, it is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.
After her official letter, the Hungarian Minister of Justice also justified her position on Facebook, where she wrote about the "Soros-funded left". Lenaers, who sits in the EPP group, said he could hardly be accused of being left-wing, and the post attacked the committee with conspiracy theories, which is
"absolutely ridiculous" and "shameful" from a member of a government.
He says the refusal to meet says more about the government's attitude to democracy than it does about the delegation. (The delegation included members from six party families, including the European People's Party as well as a representative of the far-right Identity and Democracy. Their next destination after Hungary is the left-wing led Spain.)
Delegation member Sophie in 't Veld responded to Judit Varga's claim that the committee is overstepping the EU's boundaries because national security is an exclusive competence of member states. The Dutch liberal MEP said that this is not a matter of national security, but of the rule of law and the EU, because it is like gangrene: if it happens in one Member State, it can spread to other Member States. It can also be used to influence elections, including EU decision-making bodies, so it is "our business" and could also violate fundamental rights enshrined in the EU's quasi-constitution. Pegasus, and all similar spyware, is incredibly invasive: it gives access not just to intercepts and calls, but to everything: location data, images, and apps included.
In her opinion, such apps are the biggest threat to democracy at present because they can be used in many ways to ensure that those in power retain it.
MEPs were also asked whether they saw a national security risk in Judit Varga delegating the signing of surveillance warrants to Pál Völner, who has since become a suspect in the Schadl corruption case. "Yes", Sophie in 't Veld replied succinctly.
Lenaers said it was deeply worrying that the supervision should be carried out by people appointed by the government. The MEPs met Attila Péterfalvi, head of the National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information, who had previously carried out an investigation into the matter. According to the findings made public, the National Security Service has used Pegasus on several people whose names have appeared in the press in recent months, but each of the hundreds of cases met all the legal requirements.
Lenaers said that they had mainly discussed the investigation with the head of the National Authority, but that his answers were "not entirely convincing". He said it seemed as if the investigation had focused more on journalists and the organisations that brought the case to light than on the government.
The MEPs also met the members of the National Security Committee of the Parliament, but Fidesz's János Halász did not attend the meeting. According to Lenaers, the MP indicated this ahead of time, but they don't know the officially reason for is absence. In any case, the smaller governing party, KDNP was represented.
(According to the photos of Zoltán Sas of opposition party Jobbik, the chairman of the committee, István Simicskó of KDNP was indeed there.)
The EP says civilians have been monitored elsewhere
NSO, which produces Pegasus, has previously told the European Parliament's Pegasus Committee of Inquiry that
the spyware was sold to government agencies in 14 EU Member States,
but later it stopped cooperating with two of them. Another report by the European Parliament's Justice Committee names
four countries where civilians have been spied on with the spyware. Hungary is among them, but the spyware was also widely used in Spain, Poland and Greece.
There was no shortage of politicians on the leaked list of possible victims, including French President Emmanuel Macron and Charles Michel, the current President of the European Council and former Belgian Prime Minister.
The EU hasn't done much so far and may not be able to
The European Commission announced in April 2022 that it would not launch an investigation for this reason, but that this would be up to the national authorities and the victims would have to go to the national courts to defend their rights. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) also turned to the European Commission in vain, and the EU quasi-government replied that although there are several EU laws on data protection, it does not deal with individual cases. Sophie in 't Veld criticised the European Commission, which has a duty under the EU treaties to uphold EU law.
The European Parliament is in an even weaker position to do anything of substance. MEPs will include the results of this visit in their final report, but they cannot propose legislation, much less amend the EU's powers enshrined in the EU's quasi-constitution. MEP's are expected to decide on the final wording of the text in spring.
Those who are being monitored, however, are left with another European institution outside the EU, the "Strasbourg" human rights court. (This is linked to the Council of Europe, of which all European countries are members, except Belarus, and Russia, with the latter having voted on denouncing the Council of Europe conventions a few days ago.) They can turn to it once they have exhausted all national remedies. TASZ initiated a mass lawsuit in this case, but the court had already ruled in 2016 that the authorisation procedure for secret service surveillance was unlawful and that the execution of surveillance was not controlled by an independent body. A year later, a bill was published that sought to remedy this, but it failed to reach parliament. According to TASZ, the government has amended the law on national security some 20 times since the ruling, but has done nothing (apart from the proposal that did not reach parliament) to resolve the situation, which it justifies to the Council of Europe by claiming that the analysis required for the amendments is time-consuming.
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