Shortly after arriving on the Italian island of Sardinia this fall, where he was to attend a folk festival, Carles Puigdemont was greeted by police and quickly arrested. The Italian authorities had detained the former Catalan president in exile (and current MEP for Spain) due to an arrest warrant issued by the Spanish Supreme Court. A huge debate quickly erupted over whether member states like Spain should try to arrest people for political reasons, and indeed whether European partners like Italy should help them. The event also sparked a more technical debate on whether Madrid chose to infringe EU law by doing so.
Puigdemont was arrested for his involvement in the controversial Catalonia independence referendum in 2017, which was ruled unconstitutional by Spanish courts and ultimately failed to create an internationally recognized sovereign state. As President of Catalonia at the time of the vote, he faced charges of sedition and ostensibly fled Spain to Belgium as a declaration against what supporters of Catalan independence see as a judicial power. and antidemocratic executive of Spain. The charges were never dropped, but his arrest in Sardinia nonetheless came as a surprise to the EU General Court, which had been informed by Spain that the warrant was no longer active.
The day after his arrest, magistrates at the nearest appeals court in Sassari released Puigdemont and suspended his extradition case, arguing that there was confusion over his immunity privileges as an MEP. in exercise. He is now waiting for the EU General Court to render a final decision on his status, which Puigdemont’s lawyer expects to happen in “six to seven months”.
Back in Brussels, Puigdemont told me: “Spain has never recognized my immunity or my election as an MEP. He adds that “the actions that Brussels brings against Poland for refusing to apply the mandates of European justice should apply to all member states. The real question is: if the EU General Court recognizes our immunity as MEPs, will Spain accept the decision or will it follow Poland in challenging the rule of law of the EU? EU? “
The immunity of MEPs is, according to the European Parliament’s website, a guarantee that a member “cannot be exposed to arbitrary political persecution”. In July, Puigdemont was stripped of his immunity in a provisional decision following a vote in the European Parliament. After an appeal, the European Court said that it was not necessary to restore his immunity before his final decision because, in the absence of active arrest warrants, there was no foreseeable danger that he would be faced with political persecution. When he was arrested in Italy on the basis of an active but unknown warrant, his allies claimed Madrid did not respect EU law.
Aleix Sarri i Camargo, international leader of Ensemble pour la Catalunya, the current party of Puigdemont, told me that the situation represents a “weakening of the institutions of the EU”, and underlines the way in which the contempt of Spain for EU law sets a precedent for authoritarian struggling states to do the same. “It is not enough to criticize Poland, it is not enough to criticize Hungary,” he said. “If you don’t dare to face how Spain is undermining Europe, you are creating double standards that will create a backlash.”
On October 7, the Polish Constitutional Court ruled that Articles 1 and 16 of the European treaties were unconstitutional, amid a continuing conflict between the country’s national laws and those of the EU. The disputes between Warsaw and Brussels have focused on the discipline of judges in Poland, which the EU sees as a threat to the independence of the judiciary.
In defense of its rejection of the Brussels judicial reform orders, Poland cited the imprisonment of Oriol Junqueras, Catalonia’s vice-president in the referendum, who is now also an MEP. In 2019, the Spanish Supreme Court sentenced Junqueras and eight other Catalan leaders to between nine and 13 years in prison for sedition, with the same accusation hanging over Puigdemont. Spain has not asked European courts to remove Junqueras’s political immunity before his conviction. Two months later, the EU Court of Justice ruled that Junqueras still enjoyed immunity and should not have been jailed. But having already prioritized its national laws, Spain initially ignored the decision, with the Catalan prisoners only being released two years later following a pardon from the prime minister.
Beyond the conflict of supremacy between the national laws of the EU and Spain, the Spanish law on sedition is itself controversial. The accusation involves the use of violence, which Puigdemont’s defense claims that neither he nor his allies have ever committed. In fact, Amnesty International condemned the Spanish National Police for the brutalities committed against Catalan civilians during the referendum. Sedition is also – as the Spanish Minister of Justice himself called it last year “the law of the 19th century” – an anomaly in modern Western Europe. It does not exist in France, Germany, Belgium or Italy.
With the arrest of Puigdemont, it no longer looks like an innocuous anachronism. Spain’s hunt for political prisoners and its disregard for European Parliament rules increasingly looks like a threat to the EU’s respect for the rule of law, which ultimately underpins the integrity of the bloc in general.