CATALAN INDEPENDENCE DRIVE

European Parliament withdraws deputy status from jailed Catalan politician

While former colleagues Carles Puigdemont and Toni Comín will be able to take their seats in Strasbourg today, Oriol Junqueras will remain in custody based on a Supreme Court ruling

The European Parliament announced on Friday that it would no longer recognize jailed politician Oriol Junqueras as one of its deputies, after the Spanish Supreme Court informed the institution the day before that the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) leader was ineligible for the role due to his conviction for his involvement in the 2017 independence drive in the northeastern region.

“Taking into account the decision of the National Electoral Commission [JEC] and in accordance with the decision by the Supreme Court, Junqueras’s mandate expired on January 3, 2020,” the president of the parliament, David Sassoli, said in a statement made public on Friday evening.

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 secessionist drive, which saw an illegal referendum on independence held on October 1, 2017 and a subsequent unilateral declaration of independence passed in the regional parliament. At the time of the events, Junqueras was deputy regional premier.

Despite being in pre-trial custody at the time, Junqueras ran as a candidate in last year’s European elections, and was successfully elected as an MEP. Since then, however, he has been subject to a legal wrangle as to whether or not he can take his seat.

In December of last year, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) appeared to offer Junqueras a lifeline, when it ruled that he became an MEP as soon as he was elected on May 26, and should have enjoyed parliamentary immunity from that moment on. Junqueras was in pre-trial custody at the time, however, and was unable to take up his seat.

In line with the CJEU ruling, the European Parliament issued an internal communication last Monday stating that at its first debate of the year it would “take note” of the election of Junqueras as well as fellow Catalan politicians Carles Puigdemont and Toni Comín – who fled Spain to avoid arrest in the wake of the 2017 Catalan independence drive – as MEPs. This will no longer be the case for Junqueras, after the institution took note of the communication last week from the Spanish Supreme Court. The CJEU ruling left the ball in the court of the Spanish justice system as to the scope of the immunity that Junqueras enjoyed as an MEP.

The European Parliament does, however, consider Junqueras to have been an MEP for the first six months of the current political term, meaning that he could be eligible to receive his salary for that period. “The mandates of Mr Junqueras, Mr Puigdemont and Mr Comín began on July 2, 2019 as a consequence of the official declaration of the European election results [which were held on May 26] by the competent Spanish authorities,” Sassoli added in his statement.

Puigdemont and Comín will have the chance to speak before the 749 other MEPs in the chamber

Junqueras’s defense team is not, however, giving up and has announced that it is planning on fighting the decision at the General Court at the Court of Justice of the European Union.

Meanwhile, Puigdemont and Comín – who, until the CJEU ruling, had been unable to take their seats in the European Parliament – will today enjoy their first days as official MEPs, and attend the opening session of the year in Strasbourg. They will step onto French soil for the first time since fleeing to Belgium more than 14 months ago, and will not need to fear arrest given that they enjoy immunity.

Puigdemont and Comín will have the chance to speak before the 749 other MEPs in the chamber, although their pro-independence messages are likely to be bitterly opposed by fellow politicians from Spanish groups such as the conservative Popular Party (PP), center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) and far-right Vox.

The regional premier of Catalonia, Quim Torra, will today accompany Puigdemont and Comín at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, along with other representatives of the Catalan government including the parliamentary speaker, Roger Torrent.

Torra, the current leader of Catalonia’s pro-independence government, was recently found guilty of disobedience over his refusal to remove separatist symbols from public buildings during an election campaign, and has been barred from office for 18 months. He has appealed the sentence, which could technically see him removed from office depending on the final ruling.

For now, Puigdemont and Comín are registered in the European Parliament as Non-Iscrits, but have requested to join the Greens, to which Catalan Republican Left (ERC) deputy Diana Riba already belongs. For now, the Greens have not yet responded to that request.

Immunity lifted

Meanwhile, Supreme Court Judge Pablo Llarena has filed an official request with the European Parliament requesting that the immunity of Puigdemont and Comín be lifted, and that European and domestic arrest warrants against the pair be maintained so that they can be brought to Spain to face trial for their role in the 2017 independence drive.

In his request, Marchena included a wide-ranging account of the case against the pair, saying that the events in question have nothing to do with their work as parliamentarians, and “are focused on their actions in years that far pre-date their acquisition of condition as deputies in the European Parliament.”

Based on reporting by Álvaro Sánchez, Lluís Pellicer, Bernardo de Miguel and Fernando J. Pérez. English version by Simon Hunter.