Catalan Crackdown: MEPs vote to waive the immunity of Catalan’s most wanted separatist leaders.

April 4, 2021

3 min read

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What's going on here?

The European Parliament has voted to lift the immunity of the former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and two of his separatist health and education ministers. This decision increases the likelihood that the leaders will face extradition in Spain for sedition and misuse of public funds.

What does this mean?

The European Parliament voted by 400 to 248 with 45 abstentions for Puigdemont to have his immunity removed, with 404 to 247 with 42 abstentions for Antoni Comín and Clara Ponsatí. 

The three fled Catalonia in 2017 to avoid arrest following the failed 2017 independence referendum deemed illegal by the Spanish judiciary. This resulted in European arrest warrants issued by Spain. The politicians have since become Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), enabling them to enjoy immunity. The decision to waive such rights is the latest in the series of political conflict regarding Catalonia’s fight for independence; it could allow Belgium to consider Madrid’s attempt to extradite the three politicians. Extradition involves the formal process of surrendering an individual to another state for prosecution for crimes committed in the requesting nation’s jurisdiction. Spain has been a signatory to the European Convention on Extradition since 1979.

Immunity is a right enjoyed by MEPs meaning they cannot be subject to detention or legal proceedings because of views expressed or votes cast. It is not a personal privilege, but guarantees that such a Member can freely exercise their mandate, and will not be exposed to arbitrary political persecution. Such a lift of this immunity does not mean the MEP will lose their seat. It is also not a “guilty” verdict; it merely enables the national judicial authorities to proceed with an investigation.

 Catalonia is one of Spain’s wealthiest and most productive regions, with a distinct history regarding a struggle for independence. Before the Spanish Civil War, the region enjoyed a broad autonomy which was suppressed under General Franco, the dictator who ruled in Spain between 1939-1975. Around 90% of Catalan voters backed independence in the 2017 referendum but the turnout was only 43%. Madrid subsequently suspended the region’s autonomy, ruling the referendum to be illegal.

What's the big picture effect?

The decision to lift the immunity of the three MEPs could be seen as a symbolic victory for the Spanish judiciary, but it is difficult to predict what will come of such a step taken by the European Parliament.

Spain’s foreign minister, Arancha González Laya believes the decision shows that “an MEP can’t use their position to avoid justice in their home country” and that it demonstrates the “solidity of the Spanish judicial system”. Puigdemont, however, sees it as a “sad day for the European Parliament”, stating that the parliament has lost “European democracy”. Questions have been raised regarding Spain’s democratic normality over the last five years. In 2017, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Spain as having downgraded from a “full democracy” to a “flawed” one due to the handling of the situation regarding Catalonia.

It is likely that Puigdemont and his fellow ex-ministers will appeal against the vote to the European Court of Justice, which could extend legal proceedings for at least a year. The Belgian courts have recently blocked the extradition of a fourth former Catalan official, Lluís Puig, and prosecutors have declined to appeal further. This could essentially set a precedent that could shield the three MEPs from extradition.

Separatist parties remain popular in Catalonia, gaining four additional seats in local elections last month. There has also been a recent jailing of a rapper from the region, over tweets and lyrics which attacked the monarchy and police. Such incarceration has sparked anger and encouraged protesters to call for the release of Catalonian independence leaders. Despite the possibility of a ruling, the situation in Catalan is not going away without a fight. Nevertheless, the decision to waive immunity has made a very Spanish problem a European-wide one, engaging the Community and allowing the investigation to be taken into the hands of Brussels.

Report written by Hannah Parker

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