CATALAN INDEPENDENCE DRIVE

European Parliament begins procedure that could strip Catalan MEPs of immunity

Carles Puigdemont and Toni Comín will be open to extradition to Spain depending on a vote by the chamber, but would not lose their seats until convicted of an offense

The vice-president of the European Parliament, Ewa Bozena Kopacz, announced on Thursday that the institution had put into action the procedure to vote on whether or not Catalan politicians Carles Puigdemont and Toni Comín should have their immunity as Members of the European Parliament (MEP) lifted.

The move comes in the wake of a request from the Spanish Supreme Court, which has been seeking the arrest of Puigdemont and Comín – the former Catalan premier and an ex-regional minister, respectively – to face trial for their role in the 2017 secessionist drive. The pair, along with several other members of the government, fled Spain that year to avoid arrest. Twelve of their colleagues in the independence movement, however, did face trial and nine are currently serving prison sentences for offenses such as sedition and misuse of funds.

The request from the Spanish justice system will be examined by the parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs, which will then send a recommendation to the chamber. MEPs will have the final say in a vote, which will require a simple majority (more yes votes than no) for approval.

European conservatives, social democrats and liberals have already indicated that they will give the green light to the request. But Puigdemont, whose Together for Catalonia party in Spain’s Congress of Deputies recently aligned itself with right-wing parties to vote against the investiture of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, questioned on Thursday whether the Socialists are planning on voting “with the fascists from [far-right Spanish party] Vox.”

Puigdemont and Comín, along with jailed Catalan Republican Left (ERC) leader Oriol Junqueras, successfully stood in last year’s European elections, but faced a legal battle to take their seats from that moment on. It was not until a ruling from the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in December that procedures began in the European Parliament to officially register the three as MEPs. Despite doubts about when Junqueras’s immunity became effective, the European Parliament recently accepted rulings from the Supreme Court and withdrew his status as a deputy given that his prison sentence means he is barred from such a role.

If Puigdemont and Comín were to lose their immunity, they would still be MEPs until convicted of an offense back in Spain. What’s more, in order for them to be extradited back to their home country to face trial, a Belgian judge will have to rule on the European arrest warrant against them. The judge’s work on the issue was halted once the pair acquired immunity as MEPs.

No room at the Greens

Since their arrival in the European Parliament, Carles Puigdemont and Toni Comín have been seeking to join the Greens-European Free Alliance group, which is made up of environmental and regionalist parties. However, the Greens have so far rejected these advances, which leaves the pair in the Non-Inscrits – MEPs who do not sit in one of the recognized groups, and whose number include the United Kingdom’s Brexit Party.

The spokesperson for the Greens, Philip Lamberts, said that there would be “a lack of coherence” if Puigdemont were to join their group in the European Parliament, and suggested instead that they join their “Belgian best friends,” in reference to the anti-immigration New Flemish Alliance party, which has been the main source of support for Puigdemont in Belgium. This would mean that Puigdemont and Comín would be members of the European Conservatives and Reformists, which counts on Spanish far-right party Vox among its number.

Jordi Cuixart granted prison leave

Camilo S. Baquero / EL PAÍS, Barcelona

One of the jailed leaders of the Catalan independence movement, Jordi Cuixart, was released from prison last night on a 48-hour leave.

The Catalan regional justice department this week granted leave to Cuixart, the president of Òmnium Cultural, and Jordi Sànchez, the former president of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), both of which are pro-independence civic associations.

The pair were handed down nine-year prison sentences for sedition by the Supreme Court for their role in the 2017 secessionist drive in the northeastern Spanish region. They were involved in a protest outside the regional Economic Affairs Department on September 20, 2017, which, according to the public prosecutor, was aimed at "impeding" Civil Guard raids ahead of the planned referendum.

Sànchez and Cuixart were placed in pre-trial custody without bail on October 16, 2017, and have remained behind bars since then. Having served a quarter of their sentences already, the pair were able to apply for their first leave.

Additional reporting by Álvaro Sánchez.

English version by Simon Hunter.