Puigdemont’s immunity under threat as he takes up seat as MEP
Leaders of main political groups say the Spanish justice system should be allowed to carry out its ‘work.’
1/15/20, 9:36 PM CET
Updated 1/16/20, 4:51 PM CET
Carles Puigdemont before his first plenary session as MEP in Strasbourg | Patrick Seeger/EFE via EPA
STRASBOURG — Carles Puigdemont just began his victory lap in the European Parliament — but already it threatens to be cut short.
The exiled former Catalan leader this week celebrated his first time sitting in the chamber since being elected in last May’s election, after months of being blocked by authorities in Spain. He had earlier fled the country to avoid charges over his role in a failed push for regional independence.
A top EU court ruling last month paved the way for him to finally take his seat, arguing MEPs should be granted immunity upon election.
But now Spanish officials are seeking to strip him of that protective status, with the leaders of Parliament’s three biggest political parties expressing support for such a move.
Spanish authorities have been fighting for Puigdemont’s extradition to face trial, and last week the country’s Supreme Court asked the European Parliament to lift the immunity for Puigdemont and another Catalan MEP, Antoni Comín, who also fled to Belgium in 2017 and just took his seat this week.
“The EU must advance to find common democratic mechanisms for self-determination. Repression cannot be an acceptable solution” — Carles Puigdemont
"We fully respect our rule of law principles, our independent judiciaries, and if the Spanish authorities are asking us to lift the immunity, then my party will be ready to do so," Manfred Weber, chair of the conservative European People's Party in Parliament, told reporters on Tuesday.
"I don't see for the moment anyone who's opposed to this," he added. "The justices must have the right to do their job, even when it's about such challenging issues."
The chair of the center-left Socialists & Democrats group, Iratxe García, similarly told reporters that "justice does have to work, and we have to allow that to happen."
Leader of the liberal Renew Europe group Dacian Cioloș likewise stressed that it was "normal" to let national justice systems "work" for such a case.
Together, these three political groups could easily reach the simple majority required to waive the immunity of an MEP.
Stripping Puigdemont’s protective status could open the door to potential extradition. Spain last year issued a European Arrest Warrant against Puigdemont and Comín for sedition and misuse of public funds related to the failed independence bid in 2017. A Belgian court earlier this month suspended the warrant, but that was based on the pair having immunity as MEPs.
The case of Oriol Junqueras, Puigdemont's former regional vice president who was imprisoned over the 2017 secessionist push, also doesn't bode well for the Catalan MEPs. The European Parliament had initially recognized him as an MEP after the EU court ruling said he should have been allowed out of jail to take his seat after the election, but the chamber later stripped him of his seat when Spain’s Supreme Court decided against allowing Junqueras to travel to Strasbourg.
Puigdemont, meanwhile, told reporters on Tuesday that he might try to test Madrid's nerves — and the limits of his parliamentary immunity — by potentially traveling to Spain to visit former Catalan leaders imprisoned for the charges he still faces.
Parliament President David Sassoli has yet to announce that Spain has requested the waiving of Puigdemont's immunity. As a first step, he would have to refer the case to the legal affairs committee, which would examine the case and give Puigdemont an opportunity to make his case. If the committee then votes in favor of Spain's request, it would be referred to the full Parliament.
On top of the threats to their place in Parliament, Puigdemont and Comín were not warmly received during their first days in the chamber, apart from a small welcoming committee of fellow Catalan separatists, led by current regional President Quim Torra.
Even the Green group, which has previously expressed some support for the Catalan separatists, did not appear willing to openly back Puigdemont. The group’s co-president Philippe Lamberts said he was opposed to Puigdemont's request to join the parliamentary group, telling reporters that Puigdemont's previous close ties with the Flemish far-right party N-VA posed a problem for the party. The Green group has yet to officially decide on Puigdemont's request.
Sitting in the last row of the plenary, among the MEPs not affiliated with any political group, Puigdemont and Comín appeared visibly isolated.
"Immunity is not impunity, no one in this chamber is above the law" — Spanish MEP Dolors Montserrat (EPP)
One person who did offer support was outgoing Euroskeptic MEP and Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, who came over to shake hands with Puigdemont and later suggested on Twitter that the Catalan separatists "have been treated awfully" by the EU "because they are Euroskeptics." But that didn’t necessarily help the pair win any friends. Puigdemont and his allies have always expressed a strong pro-European stance.
During his first plenary debates on Tuesday, Puigdemont attracted attention by refusing to accept questions from Spanish lawmakers.
With his new status as a European lawmaker, Puigdemont also used his first days in Parliament to insist that the Catalan issue was no longer a Spanish constitutional question but rather “a European internal affair.”
“A political solution must be found, through dialogue and negotiation,” he told the plenary. “The EU must advance to find common democratic mechanisms for self-determination. Repression cannot be an acceptable solution.”
On Wednesday morning, Spanish European People's Party lawmaker Dolors Montserrat took the floor to launch a verbal onslaught against him, making clear that she didn't think he would be there for long.
"This week has begun for you what you fear most: The law will be applied to you," she said. "Immunity is not impunity, no one in this chamber is above the law."