The European Parliament has voted to lift the immunity of the former president of Spain’s Catalonia region, Carles Puigdemont, and two of his associates
The move could pave the way for their extradition back to Spain and reopen the scars of separatism in the country.
The Spanish government immediately welcomed the decision by the European Union’s legislature as a victory for the rule of law and against those who sought to break the rich north-eastern region away from the rest of Spain.
The decision is likely to extend the three-and-a-half year legal saga on the fate of the three separatists by months, if not years, since many avenues for appeal remain open before any possible extraditions.
In the decision on Mr Puigdemont, 400 legislators voted for the waiver of immunity, 248 were against and 45 abstained.
The measures to lift the immunity of his associates – former Catalan health minister Toni Comin and former regional education minister Clara Ponsati – were by largely similar margins.
Mr Puigdemont and a number of his separatist colleagues fled to Belgium in October 2017, fearing arrest after holding an independence referendum for Catalonia that the Spanish government said was illegal.
In 2019, Mr Puigdemont and his two associates won seats in the European Parliament and were afforded protection as members of the EU assembly.
Mr Puigdemont’s lawyer in Spain, Gonzalo Boye, announced that the former Catalan president is going to appeal against the assembly’s decision to the EU’s higher courts in Luxembourg.
Spain’s foreign minister Arancha Gonzalez-Laya said the assembly’s decision showed that Mr Puigdemont and his two aides cannot shield behind their legislative seat to avoid appearing before the national justice system.
In a video statement, Ms Gonzalez Laya also said the decision meant that “the problems of Catalonia are solved in Spain, they are not solved in Europe”.
Dolors Montserrat, a European legislator with the centre-right European People’s Party and a former cabinet member of the Spanish administration that ousted Mr Puigdemont, told TVE: “Spain wins, Europe wins, democracy wins.”
She added the decision certified that Mr Puigdemont is “a fugitive who has to answer before Spanish courts”.
Iratxe Garcia Perez, the leader of the S&D socialist group, said “the European Parliament doesn’t judge anybody. We just guarantee that justice does its job. A clear majority, absolute majority of the parliament, supported the fact that Spanish justice should be able to do its job”.
Despite the wide margin to lift the three legislators’ immunity, Mr Boye said the assembly’s backing was not as overwhelming as Spain wanted it to be.
“It’s evident that there are people in the conservative group, in the EPP, and among the Socialists that have voted against,” he told Spanish broadcaster TVE.
The 2017 independence vote in favour of Catalonia breaking away from Spain won by a landslide but the central government in Madrid declared the vote illegal and unconstitutional.
Hundreds of people in Catalonia were injured in a police crackdown on the day of the poll.
Spain has attempted to have Mr Puigdemont returned for trial but failed to convince Belgian justice authorities to extradite him.
The country could well start new efforts now to have him extradited but Mr Puigdemont has vowed to fight on.