BRUSSELS — The thorny issue of Catalan separatism arose again on Wednesday when a top EU court lifted the legal immunity of three members of the European Parliament.
The EU General Court has ruled that Spain’s former regional president, Carles Puigdemont, along with two other separatist MEPs – Toni Comín and Clara Ponsatí – must lose their parliamentary immunity amid a lengthy legal battle over how which the European Parliament responded to requests from the Spanish Supreme Court.
Spain lobbied to lift the immunity of MEPs to prosecute them for their roles in an illegal Catalan independence referendum held in 2017. Puigdemont, Comín and Ponsatí fled Spain immediately after the vote and were subsequently elected to the European Parliament. .
In Brussels, Puigdemont said he would appeal the decision to the Court of Justice of the European Union.
“It doesn’t stop there; on the contrary, everything continues,” Puigdemont told reporters at a press conference in parliament on Tuesday. “Obviously we will do this as soon as possible and as ambitiously as possible, and obviously we will wait for a … favorable resolution.”
Puigdemont said after Wednesday’s decision he was neither closer nor further from a return to Spain.
The Tribunal’s decision centered on votes by the European Parliament in 2021 in favor of lifting the immunity of the three MEPs. Catalan politicians have argued that the vote, which was organized at the behest of Spain’s Supreme Court, was politically motivated.
Puigdemont and Comín also claimed that the late President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, implicitly refused to allow them to defend their immunity status earlier in the process.
On Wednesday, the Luxembourg court rejected these arguments in two separate decisions.
“The Court rejects all the pleas put forward by the three MEPs, in particular their arguments that Parliament wrongly concluded that the legal proceedings in question had not been brought with the intention of harming the activities of the MEPs”, said wrote the court in a press release. Press release.
Adrián Vázquez, a Spanish MEP from the liberal Ciudadanos party who chairs the legal affairs committee responsible for immunity procedures, said the decision “proves that the process of lifting immunity has been flawless”.
The Tribunal’s decision could pave the way for the MPs’ extradition to Spain, something Madrid authorities have been asking for for a long time.
Last year, Spain’s Socialist-led coalition government made changes to the criminal code that led to some, but not all, of the charges against the separatists being dropped or downgraded.
This allowed some long-standing arrest warrants to be overturned – and Ponsatí to return to Spain for the first time since 2017.
Ponsati was briefly detained by police but released a few hours later.
Although Spain’s Supreme Court dropped its sedition charge against Puigdemont in January, the former president of Catalonia is still being prosecuted by Spanish authorities for the crimes of aggravated embezzlement and disobedience.
In Madrid, Spain’s Justice Minister Pilar Llop responded to the ruling by insisting, “Citizen Puigdemont must appear in court.”
It’s unclear how quickly Spain can issue a new European arrest warrant against Catalan MEPs; that could depend on whether the EU Court of Justice agrees to hear Puigdemont’s appeal and whether it provisionally restores their immunity in the meantime.
Even if the Court of Justice refuses to hear the case, it also remains unclear whether the Belgian authorities will respond to a new arrest warrant against Puigdemont given the country’s historical reluctance to hand over the individuals claimed by the system. Spanish judiciary.
Developments surrounding the case could play a role in the upcoming general elections in Spain, scheduled for July 23.
While Catalonia’s independence has faded as a major political issue, it could return to the top of the agenda if the far-right Vox party, which has a zero-tolerance policy towards independence and regional autonomy, manages to enter the national government.
Aitor Hernández-Morales and Arnau Busquets Guàrdia contributed reporting.