CATALAN INDEPENDENCE DRIVE

Brussels recognizes jailed Catalan leader as MEP, despite Electoral Commission notification

Spain’s JEC sent a communication on Friday stating that Oriol Junqueras was ineligible for the role given that he is currently serving a jail sentence

Oriol Junqueras in Congress in May of last year.
Oriol Junqueras in Congress in May of last year.Uly Martín

The European Parliament on Monday issued an internal communication stating that at a debate on January 13, it will “take note” of the election of Catalan politicians Oriol Junqueras, Carles Puigdemont and Toni Comín as Members of the European Parliament (MEP). But in the case of Catalan Republican Left (ERC) leader Junqueras, his future as an MEP lies in the hands of the Spanish justice system.

Junqueras is currently serving a 13-year prison sentence after being convicted of sedition and misuse of funds by Spain’s Supreme Court for his role in the 2017 secessionist drive in the northeastern Spanish region, which saw an illegal referendum on independence held on October 1 and a subsequent unilateral declaration of independence passed in the regional parliament. At the time of the events in 2017, Junqueras was deputy regional premier, while Puigdemont was premier and Toni Comín a minister in the regional government.

The latest developments could put the issue of Catalonia back on the agenda of the European Parliament

In the wake of the events of 2017, the central government in Madrid took control of Catalonia’s regional powers under Article 155 of the Constitution, and sacked the regional government. Puigdemont, Comín and several other politicians fled Spain to avoid arrest, while Junqueras and 12 other pro-independence leaders faced trial in the Supreme Court.

Despite their legal difficulties, Junqueras, Puigdemont and Comín ran as candidates in last year’s European elections, and were successfully elected as MEPs. Since then, however, they have been subject to a legal wrangle as to whether or not they can take their seats.

In December of last year, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled that Junqueras became an MEP as soon as he was elected on May 26, and should have enjoyed parliamentary immunity from that moment on. But he was unable to be sworn in, neither in Spain nor at the European Parliament, given that at the time he was in preventive custody in Soto del Real prison in Madrid ahead of the conclusion of the Supreme Court trial.

The internal communication sent via email on Monday by the European Parliament regarding Junqueras, Puigdemont and Comín, to which EL PAÍS has had access, is in line with the CJEU ruling, and was sent in order to put into action the bureaucratic measures necessary when new MEPs arrive in Brussels. Thanks to the CJEU ruling, Carles Puigdemont and Toni Comín collected their permanent credentials as MEPs earlier this week.

But the European Parliament had apparently ignored a written notification from Spain’s National Electoral Commission (JEC) stating that Junqueras could not be sworn in as an MEP given his Supreme Court conviction.

On Friday, the JEC – which is made up of eight magistrates from the Supreme Court – ruled that under Spanish law, Junqueras could not be an MEP given that “those who are convicted by a final sentence, to a term of imprisonment, are ineligible [for office] while the sentence lasts.” The ERC has appealed the decision, however, and the Supreme Court could reverse it, allowing Junqueras – who served as an MEP between 2009 and 2012 – to return to the European Parliament.

The Spanish justice system has been trying for years to have the Catalan politicians who fled Spain extradited to face trial

On Monday, the European Parliament claimed not to have received the communication from the JEC. But a day later, it admitted that it had arrived on Friday, but that it was not opened until Monday morning and did not arrive with the relevant internal services until Monday evening, hours after Junqueras had already been recognized as an MEP.

Despite now being aware of the JEC’s communication on the status of Junqueras, the European Parliament will not change its position, and will treat him as just another MEP – at least until the Spanish justice system rules on the matter. The Supreme Court will now have to decide whether the ERC politician should be permitted to serve as an MEP and attend the first debate of the year in Strasbourg, which is scheduled for January 13 – more than six months after the current political term began.

It is not yet clear which parliamentary group Puigdemont, Comín and Junqueras will join. But the imminent arrival of the former two and the possible arrival of the latter could put the issue of Catalonia back on the agenda of the European Parliament, with the independence drive having been eclipsed by Brexit, climate change, immigration and, more recently, the crisis in the Middle East.

The Spanish justice system has been trying for several years now to have the Catalan politicians who fled Spain extradited to face trial, but has so far been unsuccessful. For the Belgian justice system to accept a European arrest warrant for Puigdemont and Comín, the Spanish Supreme Court would have to successfully request their immunity as MEPs to be suspended. This would have to be approved by other members of parliament, and is likely to generate a lively debate during which the pro-independence forces will question the actions of the Spanish justice system.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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