Separatist MEPs bring Catalan conflict to the heart of EU democracy

Former members of the Catalan government Toni Comin (L) and Carles Puigdemont (R) attend their first plenary session as member of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, 13 January 2020 and hold a poster with jailed Catalan politician Oriol Junqueras. [Patrick Seeger/EPA]

Pro-independence Catalan leaders Carles Puigdemont and Toni Comin sat for the first time as members of the European Parliament on Monday (13 January), calling on the EU to take a stance on the political conflict currently gripping Spain. 

“We are here to recall that the Catalan crisis is not an internal affair, it is a European one,” former president of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont told reporters upon his arrival for the Parliament’s plenary session in Strasbourg.

The separatist leader was referring to the European Commission’s long-standing policy of  non-interference in national affairs. 

Puigdemont and Comin fled to Belgium in 2017 to avoid incarceration in Spain. The two men were charged with sedition and misuse of public funds for their involvement in a referendum over the independence of Catalonia deemed illegal by the Spanish authorities.

Both subsequently got elected in the European elections last May. But they never travelled to Spain to take their oath before the Constitution as that would have meant  instant incarceration.

In December, the European Court of Justice ruled that members of the European Parliament have the right to immunity from the moment they are officially elected. Soon, Puigdemont and Comin were recognised as fully-entitled MEPs.

Although they benefited from the decision, the text referred to the situation of former Catalan vice-president Oriol Junqueras who has been held in custody for over two years.

Junqueras will, however, remain in prison after the Spanish Supreme Court refused to release him, arguing immunity came only after the case was remitted for decision. He was sentenced to 13 years for sedition and misuse of public funds and was banned from holding public office for the same period of time. 

“If the European Union were a union of rights and freedom, Mr Junqueras would have been among us today,” Puigdemont said in a direct attack against the bloc. “Unfortunately, there is a member state of the EU called Spain which does not respect the rule of law in Europe,” he added. 

Puigdemont urged EU institutions to get involved “in a political solution” and argued the EU executive should make sure Spain respects the ECJ decision on the matter. “Europe is risking its soul in the management of the Catalan conflict,” Comin said. 

European Parliament strip jailed Catalan MEP of seat

The European Parliament declared Friday (10 January) that jailed Catalan separatist Oriol Junqueras is no longer an MEP, stripping him of the immunity his supporters hoped would see him freed.

Fight for immunity

The chamber stayed unusually quiet when European Parliament president David Sassoli announced the election of Comin and Puigdemont as MEPs, taking effect as of 2 July 2019. 

Only a member of the Spanish far-right Vox, Jorge Buxadé, tried to get Sassoli’s attention by waving and clapping. The European Parliament  president, visibly annoyed, reacted by asking Buxadé  to “sit down and keep calm.” 

“This is not open for discussion,” Sassoli said. 

As the Parliament began its plenary session routine, some leftist and Green MEPs bashfully held posters of jailed MEP-elect Oriol Junqueras, in protest against his absence. 

Puigdemont and Comin said it was a “very emotional day” for them as they entered the European Parliament “to represent the millions of citizens” who voted for them.

But the Catalan lawmakers’ joy could be short-lived. The Parliament confirmed it had received a request from Spanish authorities to waive their immunity. Now, a long process starts that will bring the Catalan conflict to the core of European democracy as it will be up to EU lawmakers to decide whether Puigdemont and Comin should be judged in Spain.

“We will work so that those who fled justice lose immunity,” said Dolors Montserrat, who leads the Spanish conservative Popular Party (PP) delegation in the EU assembly. “Today the countdown starts for them to lose immunity so that their only destiny is the Spanish tribunals,” she said. 

Montserrat said she was already in contact with members of all political families to gather the support needed to win the vote. First, in the Legal Affairs Committee tasked with making a recommendation and then, in the plenary, where a decision will be taken by a simple majority. 

“We are convinced that this episode is just the prelude of what must happen which is for them to face justice in Spain, once the appeal is voted in the European Parliament and immunity is lifted,” said Luis Garicano, head of the Spanish delegation of centrist party Renew Europe. 

“Europe and the European Parliament are on the side of the rule of law and stands with Spain in this process,” he argued. 

Socialist MEPs have been much less vocal on the matter. The recently confirmed government of Pedro Sánchez would not have seen the light without the abstention of Catalan separatist party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya. And some fear that the traditional unity of so-called “constitutionalist” parties in Brussels and Strasbourg might be in question. 

“I fully trust the Socialist Party to keep defending the institutions and the rule of law in Europe,” Dolors Monserrat said. The contrary would be a “treason” to Spain, she added. 

Carles Puigdemont, however, has a different view. The Catalan MEP is “convinced” that Pedro Sánchez will fulfil his promise to separate judicial and political matters and expects Socialist MEPs to eventually vote against waiving his immunity. 

EU advocate general: jailed Catalan leader has right to immunity as MEP-elect

The jailed Catalan pro-independence leader Oriol Junqueras has the right to immunity as a result of being elected member of the European Parliament in May, the EU Advocate General Maciej Szpunar said in his conclusions on Tuesday (12 November). 

Sánchez’s dilemma 

The Sánchez government is a fragile minority coalition which was only made possible thanks to the abstention of regionalist political parties. And their abstention has a price. 

The newly re-elected prime minister vowed to put social, territorial and generational dialogue at the core of his agenda. Sánchez has already initiated contacts with Catalan president Quim Torra, who accompanied Puigdemont and Comin to Strasbourg. 

In an interview with EURACTIV, Catalan Councillor for Foreign Affairs Alfred Bosch argued the Spanish government agreed to political dialogue “without red lines” and only “out of necessity”.

Bosch defended the need to put on the table the situation of Catalan politicians condemned over their involvement in the independence referendum. The main goal, he said, is to find a way out of the conflict. 

And for the Catalan government, the only solution is for people to be given a right to decide. “We are favouring a referendum on the possibility of a Catalan Republic,” Bosch explained. “The problem is that we don’t know what the proposal of the government is or will be,” he admitted.  

A referendum to be held in Catalonia only would be illegal under Spanish Constitutional law. And reforming the Constitution would require a two-thirds parliamentary majority which Sánchez doesn’t have. Politically, holding such a referendum would also be difficult to justify for the Spanish premier. 

When asked if he ever regretted anything, Carles Puigdemont replied: “not calling for the independence on 10 October.” Back then, Puigdemont suspended the region’s unilateral call for independence hoping to initiate a dialogue with Madrid. But he said he was tricked. 

As Madrid and Barcelona initiate contacts again, the good governance of Spain, not only Catalonia, is now at stake. 

S&D chief: A PSOE-Podemos government will build ‘bridges’ with divided Catalonia

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[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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