Last month, the parliament’s committee on legal affairs voted to recommend that the immunity of Puigdemont and his colleagues, Antoni Comín and Clara Ponsatí, be lifted. Although that decision is not binding, it is expected to lead to the waiver being approved when the chamber votes on Monday.
This is the latest episode in a complex and drawn-out legal wrangle, which began after the three politicians fled Spain in 2017, following a failed attempt by Catalonia to secede, led by Puigdemont’s government. The former Catalan president has been based mainly in Waterloo, Belgium, since then. Comín is also living in Belgium as is Ponsatí, who also lived in Scotland. Both were ministers under Puigdemont.
The Spanish judiciary has been trying to extradite the trio so that they can go on trial for sedition – and in Puigdemont and Comín’s cases, misuse of public funds – for their roles in the 2017 independence bid. Nine Catalan independence leaders are currently serving prison terms for sedition.
Since becoming MEPs in 2019, extradition procedures against all three have been suspended. The removal of their immunity would see the process resume, although they could attempt to appeal before the European Court of Justice.
The Catalan MEPs argue that the immunity waiver request should be rejected because it contains procedural irregularities and is based on unsubstantiated charges. They also allege that the entire case is driven by political persecution on the part of the Spanish authorities, accusing the judiciary – in this case the supreme court – of ideological bias.
“We’re not asking MEPs to take sides on how to resolve the Catalan issue,” Ponsatí told The Irish Times. “We’re just asking them to understand that the Spanish judge who is prosecuting us is doing so for political reasons.”
If, as expected, the vote goes against the three Catalan MEPs, Ponsatí warns that this would mean the parliament is “taking the Spanish authoritarian approach to the conflict, which will have negative consequences”.
Esteban González Pons, a Spanish MEP for the European People’s Party, which is expected to vote to lift the immunity, pointed out that his country’s judiciary wants to try them for actions that took place more than a year before they became MEPs. Therefore, their parliamentary status, he says, should not be protected. He also addressed the issue of alleged persecution.
“Puigdemont’s party [Together for Catalonia] has formed part of the Catalan government, it took part in the recent elections, it will probably form part of the next Catalan government,” he told The Irish Times. “You can’t talk about political persecution when the party which the person in question belongs to is governing Catalonia.”
He added: “If the European Parliament decided that in Spain the rule of law does not work, then it would have to proceed to apply article seven to Spain and suspend its European funds.” He does not expect that to happen.
If the immunity of Puigdemont, Comín and Ponsatí is lifted then it will be a symbolic victory for the Spanish judiciary. However, a recent precedent suggests that efforts to extradite them are still likely to come to nothing. In January, the Belgian court of appeal ruled against allowing Lluís Puig, a former Catalan minister, to face trial in Spain for misuse of public funds. It found that the Spanish supreme court was not competent to request the international warrant for his arrest.
Puigdemont responded to that news by tweeting that it was “game over” for Spanish attempts to bring him and his colleagues to trial.
The upcoming vote could also have political repercussions in Spain, where the Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez has needed the support of the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left in parliament. If, as many expect, Spain’s Socialist MEPs vote to lift the immunity of the Catalan politicians, that could add a new obstacle to stuttering negotiations between Madrid and the Catalan government over the territorial issue.