10 min read — Analysis | Spain | Separatism

Catch Me if You Can: How the Spanish-Catalan Dispute Became European

Since the 2017 declaration of independence, the struggle between Catalan separatism and the Spanish government has transcended borders, with the fate of the Catalan politicians who fled the country to avoid prosecution as its centerpiece.
How the Spanish-Catalan Dispute Became European
Image Credit: Euro Prospects

By José Manuel Blanco Goldar

April 22, 2024 | 18:50

The European Parliament’s Review of the Spanish Presidency of the Council, on December 13th, 2023, was bound to be hijacked by Spanish national politics. Spanish MEPs, with occasional support from their European colleagues, used the opportunity to praise or attack the Sánchez government, depending on their political color: Spain’s condemnation of Israeli attacks in Gaza, the state of the economy and above all else, the proposed amnesty for the Catalan separatist leaders who were behind the 2017 declaration of independence, and who had fled the country to avoid prosecution. Highlighting the bizarreness of the situation, the supposed main culprit was present in that very room: Carles Puigdemont, former president of the Catalan regional government, accused of rebellion and misuse of public funds, and now in self-imposed exile working as an MEP, intervened in the review to remind Mr. Sánchez of his commitment to request that Spain’s minority languages be made official working languages of the EU.

The history of the so-called procés, the attempt by Catalan secessionists to secure the independence of Catalonia, is a long and twisted one. One of Spain’s most prosperous regions, with a firm sense of identity and a long tradition of political nationalism, Catalonia saw a surge of separatist sentiment in the early 2010’s, as clashes with the central government over the issue of autonomy, unrest caused by the ongoing economic crisis and the move away from supporting autonomism and towards separatism by the ruling CiU coalition incensed public opinion. With the growing popularity of the independence option (with a historical maximum of around 50% of the Catalan population supporting it, fluctuating up and down that mark in the coming years) and the regional parliament dominated by pro-secession parties, calls were made to celebrate a referendum for the formation of a new Catalan republic within the European Union. Despite the opposition from both the Rajoy government in Madrid, who argued that it went against “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation” proclaimed by Article 2 of the Spanish Constitution, and EU officials who warned that Catalonia would need to apply for membership if it attained independence, the separatist project continued onwards.

In 2017 tensions reached an all-time high, when the Junts pel Sí coalition government, headed by Carles Puigdemont, announced that it would go ahead with the celebration of an independence referendum, considered illegal by Spanish law. Held on October 1st, the consult was repressed by state security forces, at times violently, and boycotted by anti-secession Catalans, leading to just 43% of the Catalan electorate taking part in it. Nevertheless, 90% of the participants supported independence, and even though the Spanish government and the European Commission called out its lack of legal basis, the Catalan parliament went ahead and approved an unilateral declaration of independence on October 10th. Immediately, Madrid responded with the application of Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which allowed the central government to dissolve the regional government and assume its competences until new regional elections could be held. Several leaders of the separatist movement were called to trial for the crimes of sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds, but a few of them (Puigdemont and his councilors Lluís Puig, Clara Ponsatí, Antoni Comín and Meritxell Serret) decided to flee the country and seek refuge from judicial prosecution in Belgium. In response, the Spanish judge issued an European Arrest Warrant on November 2nd. 

Trouble between the member state’s judiciaries began almost immediately. The Belgian authorities have a long history of judicial disagreements with Spain, and after the announcement of a delay in the arrest’s execution, the Spanish Supreme Court withdrew the EAW, in fear that the Belgian judge would not recognize the rebellion and sedition charges for the purpose of extradition, lacking an equivalent figure in Belgian law. This would have meant that the accused could have only been judged according to the lighter offense of misuse of public funds, unlike other Catalan politicians involved in the declaration of independence who had remained within Spain and were subjected to the full extent of Spanish law. This worry was confirmed when the EAW was reactivated in March 23rd, 2018, leading to the arrest of Puigdemont in Germany and Clara Ponsatí in Scotland, only for Puigdemont to be released on bail after the German judge agreed to extradite him exclusively on grounds of embezzlement, with the warrant being called off once more on July 19th.

The process took a new, strange turn in 2019, when Puigdemont, Posantí and Comín announced their candidacy as part of the separatist “Lliures per Europa” ticket in the May elections for the European Parliament. They were joined by Oriol Junqueras, another notable Catalan leader who was being tried in Spain at that moment, and who led the “Ahora Repúblicas” coalition within the Greens/EFA group. Though the Spanish judiciary recognized their right to run as candidates as they had not received a criminal sentence yet – with Puigdemont, Comín and Junqueras being elected as MEPs -, new obstacles just kept emerging: Puigdemont and Comín were denied entry to the European Parliament on the basis that they had not been sworn in in Madrid as MEPs, while Junqueras was prevented from filling in the necessary paperwork to become one on the basis that he was on trial.

With the Catalan issue reaching the EU institutions’ door, the matter was taken to the Court of Justice of the European Union, where the pendulum swinged once again in favor of the secessionists: in its preliminary ruling of December 19th, 2019, the Court came to the conclusion that Junqueras enjoyed parliamentary immunity since his election as MEP, and that it should have been allowed to take his seat in Parliament. While this decision came too late for Junqueras – who had been sentenced to 13 years of prison on October 14th and was therefore unqualified to be a representative -, it allowed Puigdemont and Comín to finally enter the EU Parliament, being recognized as MEPs in January 2020.

Thus, the extradition of the Catalan exiles and the status of the MEPs’ immunity became the main external avenues of what was otherwise considered a “Spanish internal affair”. New European Arrest Warrants were issued in October and November 2019, but the one against Clara Ponsatí was initially dismissed by the UK for being “disproportionate” – though it would eventually process it before bailing her -, while the warrant against Lluis Puig was rejected by a Belgian court. On the parliamentary front, the Spanish government began its offensive as soon as Puigdemont and Comín took their seats – as well as Ponsatí, who became an MEP after the rearrangement of seats caused by Brexit -, requesting the EP to lift their immunity following standard procedure. These efforts were finally rewarded in March 2021, when Parliament voted in favor of waiving it, a decision which was appealed by the Catalan leaders before the EU General Court but temporarily maintained by it until a firm ruling could be made. However, Spain’s hope for a swift resolution to the exile issue was once again dashed when Puigdemont was detained by Italian authorities on September 23rd, only to be released a day later and the extradition case against him suspended on October 4th.

After a temporary restoration of the Catalan leaders’ parliamentary immunity by the Court of Justice of the European Union in May 2022, the same body finally ruled in favor of the EP’s decision to remove it in July 2023. Luckily for the exiles, the wind had shifted in their favor back in Spain: the left-wing coalition which had come to power in 2019, needing the support of the Catalan nationalist party ERC to maintain Sánchez’s minority government, began a process of rapprochement and negotiation with the separatists. Several imprisoned secessionist leaders – including Junqueras – were pardoned in 2021, and the penal code was modified to abolish the crime of sedition in 2022, much to the chagrin of the Spanish right. Finally, after the 2023 elections and a renewal of the Sánchez administration with the support of ERC and Puigdemont’s Junts per Catalunya party, work on a highly controversial amnesty law – which would see the exiled politicians, among others, pardoned – began, being finally approved on March 14th, 2024.

As the Review of the Spanish Presidency demonstrated, Spanish conservatives have criticized what they see as kowtowing to separatists, and they have taken any opportunity available to them to attack the government’s policies. Both they and the Sánchez government have tried to appeal to the EU to uphold their positions, arguing either that it constitutes an overreach of law or that it is in line with “EU values”. Nevertheless, and even though it is very likely that the Spanish right will try to challenge the amnesty bill before the CJEU, the end of the Catalan leaders’ exile seems nearer than ever. Puigdemont already announced on March 21st that he would not take part in the European elections of June, instead choosing to lead Junts per Catalunya in the Catalan elections on May 12th. Only time will tell if this will truly be the last chapter of this twisted legal saga, or if it is yet another dead end.

Disclaimer: While Euro Prospects encourages open and free discourse, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of Euro Prospects or its editorial board.

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