Spanish vote spins around the question of Catalonia
The Spanish general election takes place tomorrow, after a fractious campaign dominated by the Catalan question.
With a quarter of the electorate undecided, the outcome is unpredictable. There are two main possibilities: a right-wing triple alliance Government of the Popular Party, the Citizens' Party and Vox, led by Pablo Casado; or a left-wing coalition led by outgoing Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez of the PSOE (Socialist Party) and Podemos with, or without, the support of the regional nationalists.
If Sanchez returns to power, it is expected the dialogue with the Catalan nationalists will resume, which could lead to an official referendum on the future of Catalonia.
If Casado emerges as the new prime minister, a crackdown on the Catalan nationalists is expected, including the possibility of Madrid restoring direct rule on the region.
By next week the focus of attention for Catalan-watchers will shift towards Catalonia's ex-president Carles Puigdemont and his bid to be elected to the EU parliament.
Puigdemont defies comparison with the stereotype image of a revolutionary leader. He is neither a Mahatma Gandhi nor a Che Guevara.
A modest, unassuming, almost a humble man, he would not consider himself a celebrity by any means and yet despite his best efforts he has become one.
In fact, since Julian Assange was arrested, Carles Puigdemont is now the undisputed celebrity fugitive on our screens.
Unlike Assange, Puigdemont is not holed up in an embassy but living in a leafy suburb of Waterloo, 30 minutes south of Brussels. He is a fugitive from Spanish justice, but relatively free to move within Belgium.
However, every move abroad is a risk, both to his personal safety and his freedom.
A Spanish national arrest warrant on charges of rebellion remains in force. An international warrant could be issued at any time.
The purpose of Puigdemont's bid for election to the EU parliament is to achieve more freedom of movement in order to internationalise the cause of Catalan independence.
MEPs who have not been convicted of a crime are immune from arrest. If elected, Puigdemont should be free to move within the EU.
As head of list for his party, Junts per Catalunya, and given its current support he is certain to be elected.
The original assumption was his immunity would kick in from the moment he was deemed elected.
However, European Parliament President Antonio Tajani sought a legal opinion. The four-page document, leaked by the prominent Spanish newspaper 'La Vanguardia' is bad news for Puigdemont and his fellow on-the-run candidates.
While it supported the view that a candidate with a national arrest warrant may participate in the elections, if elected he will have to present himself in Madrid to swear an oath to uphold the Spanish constitution, and be included in the list of successful candidates the Spanish authorities will submit to the EU parliament.
If he is arrested in this process, the Spanish judicial authorities could still give him permission to take the oath.
Even assuming Puigdemont is prepared to do so, the Spanish judicial authorities are unlikely to grant him this permit as they have consistently wanted him to join his former ministers in the regional government who are currently on trial in Madrid.
There are two separate issues here. The first is how could Puigdemont take an oath to uphold the Spanish constitution, which, through interpretation by the constitutional court, effectively denies the status of nationhood to Catalonia?
There is a precedent which suggests itself to anyone familiar with Irish history which might offer a way out.
In 1932, Fianna Fáil leader Éamon De Valera was required to take an oath of allegiance to the Constitution of the Irish Free State and to be faithful to King George V and his successors, etc, before he and his party could take power. He signed the oath and dismissed it as simply signing a piece of paper.
Could/would Puigdemont do something similar?
Unlike De Valera, Puigdemont is totally committed to non-violence. His leading role in organising the independence referendum in October 2017 is beyond dispute.
However, international media in Barcelona reported that violent methods were used on that day not by the voters, but by police ordered to disrupt the voting.
If Puigdemont was prepared to take the oath, the EU parliament could accept that he would do so in Brussels. However, once again, it seems, permission from Spain would be required.
Perhaps there is a way around this? Of course, if elected but unable to attend, Puigdemont and the other on-the-run candidates can nominate their stand-ins or the next on the party list.
At the end of the process, Catalan MEPs, both unionists and nationalists, should all take their seats in the EU parliament and make their contribution to European democracy.
Ultimately, the election that will count most for Catalans will be an official referendum on the future of Catalonia. The prospects of this happening will become clearer on Monday as the count in the Spanish elections concludes.