MEPs have overwhelmingly agreed to strip immunity from the former president of Spain”s Catalonia region, Carles Puigdemont, and two of his associates.
Puigdemont fled to Belgium in October 2017, fearing arrest after holding an independence referendum for Catalonia that the Spanish courts and its government said was illegal. He was later elected as a Spanish MEP.
The vote on Monday evening stripped him and two other Catalan MEPs of their immunity from prosecution and could pave the for their extradition. That would risk reopening the scars of separatism in Spain.
Here’s what you need to know about the situation and where things could go from here.
Who are the three former Catalan politicians?
In the vote, 400 MEPs opted in favour of waiving Puigdemont’s immunity, while 248 were against and 45 abstained.
The parliament also decided on the same measures for his associates — former Catalan health minister Toni Comín and former regional education Minister Clara Ponsatí — by largely similar margins.
Puigdemont and his two ex-ministers are wanted in Spain on charges of rebellion, while he and Comín are also accused of misusing public funds.
The three fled to Belgium in 2017 to avoid arrest, with Spain issuing European arrest warrants for them. But the Belgian courts threw the warrants out in 2018 saying the charge of rebellion brought against the trio did not exist under national law.
The three Catalan separatists won seats in the European Parliament in 2019 and were afforded protection as members of the EU assembly as a result.
How did we get here?
The 2017 independence vote in favour of Catalonia breaking away from Spain was a landslide victory.
But the central government in Madrid declared the vote illegal and unconstitutional.
Hundreds of people in Catalonia were injured in a police crackdown on the day of the poll.
Spain has handed out jail terms between nine and 13 years to nine other Catalan leaders for their role in the independence ballot.
It has attempted to have Puigdemont returned for trial but failed to convince Belgian justice authorities to extradite him.
In 2018 the Belgian courts threw out an arrest warrant against Puigdemont and Comín, who live in Belgium, on grounds that the charge of rebellion brought did not exist under Belgian law.
Ponsatí lives in Scotland, where last year a court in Edinburgh suspended the extradition process pending the outcome of the immunity issue.
What next steps may Spain and the Catalan separatists take?
Both sides have indicated that they will seek a ruling from the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
It is expected that Spain will seek to issue fresh European arrest warrants to bring the trio back for trial. The Spanish Supreme Court judge investigating Catalonia’s attempted breakaway from Spain has requested a preliminary ruling from the ECJ.
Legal procedures by Spain’s top court to issue warrants were put on hold last year when the three politicians became members of the European Parliament and gained immunity.
The three MEPs have also vowed to appeal the assembly’s decision to strip them of their immunity to the EU’s top court. One of their lawyers believes there are good grounds to challenge the European Parliament’s procedure, according to Mar Aguilera Vaqués, professor of constitutional law at the University of Barcelona.
“In his opinion, there have been many irregularities, such as the lack of confidentiality, and also from what I’ve heard he was saying that some of the members were biased,” she told Euronews. “Many times lawyers manage to prove that all the formal steps were not well taken… so I think that it might have an effect.”
What of the role of national courts?
It’s thought the Belgian and Scottish courts may wait for the European court to rule before taking any next steps. If they revive the extradition hearings, it is far from certain they will accede to the Spanish requests.
In January the Belgian courts refused to extradite another former member of Puigdemont’s cabinet, Lluís Puig, arguing the Spanish Supreme Court did not have the authority to try him.
Legal expert Mar Aguilera Vaqués says national courts have resisted extradition requests up to now.
“Judges in Germany, Brussels and Scotland… all these courts have said that these activists would not have a fair trial in Spain, for many reasons,” she said, citing other cases where separatists had been put in pre-trial detention, denied appeal rights, or refused the right to use the Catalan language.
“All of this was taken into account by different judges from Belgium, Germany and the UK — and they did not extradite these politicians.”
Where do the extradition cases leave Catalonia’s political situation?
The immunity decision will likely also extend the three-and-a-half-year legal saga on the politicians’ fate by months, if not years, as many avenues for appeal remain open before any possible extraditions.
Meanwhile, the politics surrounding the question of Catalonian independence remain as divisive as ever.
Puigdemont told a news conference after the MEPs’ vote: “It’s a sad day for the European parliament. We have lost our immunity, but the European parliament has lost even more than that, as a result, it has also lost European democracy.”
But the Spanish government welcomed the result, claiming it showed that matters concerning Catalonia should be determined in Spain.
However, Catalan separatists increased their majority in February’s local elections, and the government in Madrid has been seeking to improve relations. MEPs affiliated with Podemos, the junior partner in Spain’s Socialist-led coalition, opposed lifting the Catalan politicians’ immunity.
Yet the margin for manoeuvre among Spanish leaders is limited, argues Aguilera Vaqués. “When Podemos started saying it they lost many votes, they lost a lot of followers. So in the rest of Spain there is a price to say that ‘we need to talk about a solution for Catalonia’,” she told Euronews.
Yet the expert in constitutional law argues that ultimately politics, not extraditions or other legal cases, represent the only practical path ahead.
“Without a political solution, this will not be solved and I think that no Spanish government has made a proposal to solve the political question in Catalonia. The more aggressive (they get) or the more the judiciary get into it, the more ‘independentistas’ you get in Catalonia.”