The Spanish state's persecution of the exiled Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, across the European continent and even beyond, is set to suffer an unmitigated calamity this Monday at 5pm. The entry of the pro-independence politician and his colleague Toni Comín into the chamber of the European Parliament will provide the most vivid image possible of the difficulties that Spain is having in the convoluted judicial tussle on which it has embarked.
A saga that began in 2017 with Spain’s repression of the Catalan independence process, and the decision by Puigdemont and other pro-independence politicians to continue the struggle from elsewhere in the EU, seems now to be entering a new stage of internationalization of the issue. Reaching the point where they are able to take their seats as MEPs, however, has not been easy. The obstacle-ridden road to European parliamentary status began well before last year's EU elections, with the preparation of party lists to represent the Catalan pro-independence groups.
The candidacy of Puigdemont, Comín and a third exiled Catalan politician, Clara Ponsatí, at the head of the JxCat list in the European elections, was challenged by Spanish right wing parties the PP and Cs, with the argument that they were not able to fully exercise their rights because they had "fled Spain". The Central Electoral Commission accepted this argument and the names of the Catalan trio were struck off the candidate lists proclaimed by the electoral body.
This decision by the commission was announced on April 29th, just hours before the deadline for submitting lists. JxCat was unable to present its candidature as it stood, with the names of the exiled politicians, because it would not be accepted, but it was imperative to submit a list if JxCat sought to run in the election at all. Within less than two hours, JxCat surprised by announcing that the names Puigdemont, Comin and Ponsatí would be "tentatively" replaced by former Barcelona mayor Xavier Trias, lawyer Gonzalo Boye and journalist Beatriz Talegón.
The strategy achieved its result. Five days later, during a hectic judicial weekend, public prosecutors acting at a Madrid disputes court contradicted the electoral commission's decision and considered that the candidate veto was not in compliance with the law. The Madrid court accepted the appeal from JxCat on Saturday, May 4th, but decided to elevate the decision to Spain's Supreme Court.
And Spain's highest court agreed, after holding an emergency meeting on a Sunday. It ruled that the three pro-independence politicians were eligible to stand, but returned the case to the lower Madrid court on a point of jurisdiction. Finally it was the disputes court that gave the green light to the original JxCat candidature.
Taking possession of the post
On May 26th, the electoral list headed by Puigdemont became the most voted in Catalonia in the European elections, and both the exiled president and Comín won seats in the EU chamber, according to the vote count. But that didn't put a stop to anything. From there the second chapter of the legal struggle began: taking possession of the position of MEP.
The Central Electoral Commission made it clear that if Puigdemont and Comín wanted to formally take possession of their seats, they would have to present themselves at the Spanish Congress in Madrid to swear allegiance to the constitution - an action which would have resulted in their immediate detention, given the warrants that had been issued for their arrest. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court refused permission for jailed Catalan vice president Oriol Junqueras to take possession of the EU seat he had obtained, at the head of the separate candidature of his party, ERC.
On June 17th, the Spanish electoral body rejected lawyer Gonzalo Boye's proposal to present the required documentation on behalf of both politicians in Congress, even if the lawyer's entry of their documentation into the register was accepted. The exiled politicians were also refused permission to carry out the formalities by telematic means. And after that, their seats were declared vacant.
Thus, Puigdemont and Comín appeared on the list of elected MPs published in the Spanish government gazette on June 13th when all results were proclaimed, but their names then disappeared from the list of MEPs which Spain submitted to the EU Parliament. The then president of the European chamber, Antonio Tajani, even blocked them from accessing the building.
In spite of this, Carles Puigdemont announced that he would be attending the opening session of the European Parliament at its Strasbourg centre, on July 2nd. Previously, the two Catalans had asked the EU Court of Justice to provisionally deactivate Tajani's veto, in the confidence that the Luxembourg court would later give a full decision allowing them access to their seats.
However, on the eve of the July 2nd session, the EU court rejected granting any interim measures. Puigdemont and Comin thus did not cross the German border to Strasbourg. They had information that a Spanish police presence had been detected and they were alerted to the risk of being arrested if they stepped foot on French soil.
In the meantime, thousands of Catalan demonstrators rallied outside the European chamber, protesting the absence of the three pro-independence leaders in the new parliament's first plenary. The JxCat seats were then left vacant, for the moment.
Immunity of Junqueras
The situation took a new turn in mid-November when an advocate general for the EU Court of Justice concluded that Oriol Junqueras had been covered by parliamentary immunity from the very moment that he was elected. This thesis directly affected the situation of Puigdemont and Comín. On December 19th, the EU court announced its ruling, which was along similar lines, deciding that MEPs are regarded as elected from the moment they are proclaimed as electorally successful, without it being possible to impose any other requirements.
The new president of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, after a tense meeting with the chair of the Socialist group, Iratxe García, told MEPs that the CJEU's ruling was of major importance, affecting the composition of the house, and he urged the authorities to abide by it.
The ECJ found that a person elected acquires the status of member of the @Europarl_EN and therefore enjoys immunity. I call upon the competent Spanish authorities to align with the ruling. I have given a mandate to the services to evaluate its possible impact on the composition. pic.twitter.com/CPK7wTCdAk— David Sassoli (@EP_President) December 19, 2019
The very next day, the doors of the parliament in Brussels were opened for Puigdemont and Comín who were able to obtain their provisional accredition as MEPs, just as the chamber closed for the Christmas holidays.
As soon as the Parliament's activity resumed on January 6th, the two politicians formalized their status as Members of the European Parliament, with accreditations for the entire legislature and all the recognition and logistical support that this entails. At the same time, the Parliament formally recognized their status as MEPs - as well as that of Oriol Junqueras.
However, both the Spanish electoral commission and the country's Supreme Court then ratified their refusal to accept the three Catalan politicians' status as MEPs. Pablo Llarena, the investigating judge in their case, warned last Friday that in the event that Carles Puigdemont entered Spanish territory, he would be taken into custody because his arrest warrant was still in effect. Llarena also announced that a request was being made to the EU Parliament to waive the immunity that the status of MEP provides. It was also announced on Friday that, following the Supreme Court's decision to ignore the EU court's conclusion and maintain Junqueras in prison, the EU Parliament had fallen into line with the Spanish ruling and withdrawn his MEP status.
When Puigdemont and Comín take their seats at 5pm on Monday in the EU Parliament - once again in Strasbourg - the pressure from Spanish justice will start to exert itself again. However, the petition that judge Llarena announced will take six months, during which the EU Parliament will scrutinise not only the accusations against the two pro-independence politicians but also the entire trial against the leaders of the independence process.
During this time, the parliament's Legal Affairs Committee will be able to request all the information it deems necessary from Spanish justice, while the two MEPs will have the opportunity to present arguments that they consider appropriate on the case. Finally, it will be the plenary session of the entire European chamber which will have to address - and vote on - the matter.
In summary, a severe examination for a Spanish justice system which already in recent weeks has been visibly straining under the watchful gaze of its European colleagues.