Democracy consists, among other things, of citizens having the right to elect and control those who represent them in the institutions. In the European elections on May 26th, Oriol Junqueras was elected as an MEP by 1,257,484 European citizens residing in Spain. Carles Puigdemont and Toni Comín were also elected as MEPs, by 1,025,411 citizens of Europe - not necessarily of Spanish nationality. Spain is desperately trying to ensure that Junqueras, Puigdemont and Comín cannot exercise their role as parliamentarians in Strasbourg and Brussels, just as it has done previously with the pro-independence Catalan deputies and senators chosen by voters in the Spanish elections and before that with the president and members of the government of Catalonia. The pretext in the case of the MEPs seems to be lifted from the script of Mariano José de Larra's satirical play Vuelva usted mañana ("Come back tomorrow") to demonstrate that Spain retains its atypical traditions. The authorities do not want to recognize the status of the three men as MEPs, not because they do not have the votes, but because they are missing a piece of paper.
However, the question has now definitively ceased to be an internal Spanish affair. Rather, it is a European issue of great significance that will mark a turning point in the Union or even, depending on what actually happens, an ending point, which would be much more serious. Such a reflection is justified by the sudden change of strategy made by the Spanish Supreme Court regarding the preliminary question addressed to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), which took place immediately after the recent meeting in Madrid between the CJEU president, Koen Lenaerts, and the top judges in Spain's Supreme Court: the overall president of the court, Carlos Lesmes, and the presidents of its five separate divisions, thus naturally including the president of its criminal law division, Manuel Marchena.
Up until now, all the efforts of the Spanish government and the country's courts have been aimed at defending Spain's jurisdictional sovereignty, as if Europe could say nothing on a matter that Spain considered to be strictly internal. The public prosecutors have been implacable on this and the court has systematically backed its line. Until now. The Supreme Court has decided to submit the preliminary question on the matter to the Luxembourg Court, as demanded by Andreu Van den Eynde, defence lawyer for Oriol Junqueras. What has happened?
Junqueras, Puigdemont and Comín are not important in themselves, but their cause puts the European Union at the edge of the precipice, because it will determine if the Union can really become something more than a private club of governors divvying up the business
On Friday, June 21st, CJEU president Lenaerts gave a lecture at the headquarters of Spain's General Council of the Judiciary - the governing body of the country's judicial power - with one principal message: "mutual trust is required" between the member states and, therefore, also between the European courts. It was clearly a way of criticising the 2018 decision by the Schleswig-Holstein court that prevented Spain's desired extradition of Carles Puigdemont on a charge of rebellion, and the address gave hope to the Spanish judges' anxiousness to assert their control. The European Union, said Lenaerts, must be "a space without internal borders where citizens can circulate freely and safely," but adding that this elimination of borders "cannot by default also imply the weakening of the power of member states" - without inserting the final words "over citizens". Needless to say, the Spanish judges applauded him enthusiastically for what he told them in public, and perhaps because of what he must have explained to them in private. In any case, Lenaerts has automatically become a candidate for the many prizes and compliments that Spanish monarch Felipe VI has previously awarded to leaders of other European institutions such as Antonio Tajani, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, who have shown themselves capable of responding in total harmony with Spanish governments on the question of the Catalan conflict.
According to the Supreme Court's ruling, Oriol Junqueras was denied permission to leave prison and swear his oath of office as an MEP because it would put the objectives of the trial "in irreversible endanger". Thus, the priority of the Supreme Court was and is to pass judgement on Junqueras and condemn him without having to ask permission from anyone. If now it accepts the intervention of the CJEU, it can only be because it thinks that it is in accordance with this court's objectives, and it has only seen this since Lenaerts's visit. There is a thesis circulating which asserts that, as long as the CJEU does not respond to the question, the Spanish Supreme Court will have time to give its judgement and suspend the political rights of the prisoners, but, dismiss that and you will not be wrong, any other conjecture is just as good. The point is that if the Spanish state, with its influence, which should not be underestimated, were to obtain the collusion of the continent's institutions in leaving without representation more than two million citizens, the European Union would lose its reason for existence as a democratic institution. Once arbitrariness and legal uncertainty get a hold on the institutions, the system automatically begins to decay. Any government would see itself as able to prevent political adversaries from becoming representatives and the leaders of Hungary and Poland, to give just two examples, have already shown their predisposition in this regard.
It is easy to regard Catalan independence as a minority movement within Europe which does not have many allies in the Union and to consider that once its representation has been annulled the protests won't last long and people will end up forgetting about it. However, we are not facing a problem of people, but rather, a matter of principles and of fundamental values. Junqueras, Puigdemont and Comín are not important in themselves, but their case puts the European Union on the edge of the precipice, because it will determine if the Union can really become something more than a private club of governors divvying up the business.