Conversation with Carles Puigdemont on parliamentary immunity

On 9 December, Carles Puigdemont, MEP and former President of Catalonia, talked online from his residence in Waterloo, close to Brussels, with Matteo Angioli about the lifting of his parliamentary immunity, which will be considered by the Committee on Legal Affairs of the European Parliament from 14 January 2021, upon request of the Spanish State. The “casus belli” is the events occurred in Barcelona and elsewhere in Catalonia on 1 October 2017, when the unauthorized Catalan independence referendum was met with violence by Spanish authorities. Later that month, on 30 October, after the Spanish National Prosecutor filed the accusations of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement against the organizers of the referendum, the then Catalan President fled to Belgium. Subsequently, after a series of legal battles, the Catalan exponents were allowed to run in the European elections in May 2019. Four of them were elected, but only three of them, Clara Ponsatì, Toni Comin and Carles Puigdemont were authorized, after six months of further legal battles and a ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union, to take their seat in Strasbourg on the 15th of January 2020. One year later, after a delay caused by the Covid19 pandemic, the Committee on Legal Affairs will begin to examine, behind closed doors, the lifting of parliamentary immunity for the three MEPs. Carles Puigdemont spoke in Spanish. The conversation is available on the website of Radio Radicale.

MA: Mr Puigdemont, Spain wants your parliamentary immunity to be lifted, how are you and your and your colleges Clara Ponsati and Toni Comin preparing defence?

CP: The procedure is the ordinary one: once the Spanish state asks for our immunity to be revoked, the floor passes to the Legal Commission of the European Parliament and we are called to a hearing on the 14th of January to defend our position. After that, the rapporteur will have to draw up a report that will be voted first by the Commission and then in the plenary assembly of the parliament, which will have the last word on the suspension of our immunity. We clearly continue to say that this is a fundamentally political issue and that political persecution is not acceptable in any European institution. There is a evident violation of fundamental rights, procedures and the rule of law, which have all been recognized twice by the UN Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. In fact, the Group affirmed that the detentions of Catalan political prisoners are absolutely arbitrary, and established by a judicial authority that is not the competent one. Therefore, this violation must be stopped by releasing the detainees immediately. This is the situation, now it will be necessary to see what the decision of the Legal Commission will be.

How long could the examination of your case take?

We don’t know because we have no experience, but normally it won’t be long after the first audition. The Commission must examine the rapporteur’s report and vote on it and send it back to Parliament within a month. I don’t know how to measure a precise time frame for a dossier with these characteristics because I have no experience with this.

Yes, we have already referred to previous cases, starting with our election in Strasbourg when we had to face President Tajani who used his power to defend the People’s Party and not the European Parliament, making political use of the Presidency of the European Parliament. Fortunately, the European Court of Justice defended us by stating that we had already been officially recognized as MEPs for six months, which President Tajani, at the instruction of the Spanish state, refused to accept. We will clearly defend ourselves by stating that our immunity is associated with our election to the European Parliament and that its lifting, in our case, is a political decision.

The Court of Justice of the European Union established that the electoral process in the European Union is administered by the national state and that its role ends with the announcement of the elected officials. Therefore, no further formalities, signature, oath are needed to translate that election into the right to go to Strasbourg. This makes European law prevail over national law. It seems to me a discriminating factor in your case. Is that so?

We have always pointed out that the European legislation states that obtaining the status of deputy takes place at the end of an electoral process, after which the state that administers the electoral process has no longer functions. These end with the announcement of the results. There are some precedents, including Italian ones, but the basic debate in this case concerns the primacy of European law over national interests. Does European law prevail or not? This is our battle, which we did won at first. In this case, however, the debate is more complex, despite that the double standard that creates so much damage to the European Union remains at the centre of it.

We cannot accept the silence of the EU on the case of Catalonia. It is a European question. It is not possible to speak of countries such as Belarus or Venezuela and others where human rights are evidently trampled on if rights within the European Union are not respected. On the 1st of October 2017, the day of the referendum for Catalan independence, there was an immeasurable use of violence and force by a member country of the European Union and the EU said nothing. Why is police violence condemned in Belarus? With what moral authority? Obviously, our fundamental rights are being violated only because we are separatist, and the European Union continues its silence. This type of “double standard” is what we want to defeat, also because having European citizens know that the EU defends human rights against the authoritarian impulses of some states is something positive and it gives us great hope. We want to commit ourselves to this, not only through our specific case. A certain idea and a certain concept of the European Union is at stake.

As coordinator of the Radical Party initiative in favour of a draft resolution on the Right to Know at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, I would like to ask you if the hearings of the Legal Commission will be public or knowable. Did you plan any initiatives to make their progress known as much as possible?

The sittings of the Committee for Legal Affairs, including our hearings, are confidential, therefore there will be no broadcast, no presence of the public; this is the current rule that is followed in all circumstances and we respect it. Of course, once the process will be over, we will be free to explain our position. However, we have to face a powerful propaganda machine, which is the Spanish state and its delegations within the European Parliament which are very active in the various parliamentary groups. Just think of one fact: the proportion of European Deputies elected by Spain out of the total is about 8%. The proportion of Spanish members present on the Legal Commission is 20%, which represents the highest number of Spaniards in the committees of the European Parliament. More than the Committee on Budgets, which seems to me more important at the moment, given the Spanish economic crisis. Judging by the number of Spanish MEPs who are members of the various commissions, it seems that the priority interest of the Spanish state is our demand. It is an obsession that comes from afar. Our fight against the propaganda machine of the Spanish state, however, is not new, we have always had to face this kind of difficulty and we will continue to do it as we always had: by answering when they ask us questions, giving explanations when they ask us for them and expressing ourselves when we can. In return, we ask that this freedom of expression is to be respected, as well as the freedom of movement, which we do not have now despite enjoying full immunity. There is a state of the European Union that does not allow us to exercise our right of freedom of movement as deputies, and it is the Spanish state which does not treat us as deputies and would arrest us immediately.

Despite your immunity?

Yes. This is why the Spanish state is demanding to remove our immunity, so that we can be incarcerated. Madrid did not wait for the European Parliament to dismiss our immunity to follow the legal procedures. This is why we cannot go back to Spain, because otherwise we would end up in prison. It is an attack on our rights as MEPs.

Why has the Spanish state opted for an acceleration and such a sudden and massive use of criminal law with respect to your case?

We must remember that there are 9 people condemned to sentences ranging from 9 to 13 years in prison, some for having participated in a demonstration and others for having organized a referendum. This is totally unacceptable. Inconceivable. When it happens in Hong Kong, Belarus or Venezuela, the European Union is rightly mobilized. But why has the Spanish state given up on politics to resolve the Catalan issue? Why did they choose the worst path, the one of turning to justice for a purely political and legitimate claim? Surely because the culture and the traditional concept of Spanish power must be associated with the concept of domination that great empires have. It is not associated with the concept of compromise, negotiation, transfer, but rather with that of imposition and domination. As a minority nation, we can easily be dominated because we don’t have the critical mass to play on equal terms with the Spanish state. Therefore, today the Spanish state is not giving up violence to prevent the independence of Catalonia. When we instead obviously renounced to violence. This conception of power in Spanish political culture sees compromise as something unusual.
There is also another theme in the Catalan question, which is the one of the persecution of the Catalan nation and of the language, culture, institutions, universities. This since Philip V, in 1714, with the “Nueva Planta” decree which starts the period of persecution of Catalan culture and institutions. With Felipe VI it changed little. He kept repression as the only means of resolving a political conflict, obviously a grave mistake. There are many ways to resolve this situation, especially if there is the will of the population. If a majority of them report a political problem, it must be borne in mind that politics was invented for this, to deal with them, just as democracy is the best tool to resolve this type of dissension. The problem of democratic societies is not that there is dissent, since dissent is intrinsic to democracy, the problem arises when there are no tools to resolve this dissent.

In your opinion, is there a serious debate and confrontation at parliamentary level, starting with Strasbourg, both in the plenary and in the committees, which allows us to deepen and tackle the various problems, even the most difficult, such as that of separatism? Marco Pannella argued that to distinguish a democracy from an autocracy is the “right to blasphemy”. How can you look for the solution to a problem if you can’t even talk about it?

The problems are varied. The first is that the parliamentary life of the European Parliament is very distant from the parliamentary life of the old democracies. There is no open, improvised debate. The control over the European government is very limited and the “tyranny of the majority” is evident, in other words those two/three largest political groups that control the parliament without caring about the minorities of which we belong. This is an issue on which I think we need to reflect: what kind of parliamentarism does the European Union reflect in the 21st century? Some mechanical and functional aspects are obsolete.
The second theme concerns what we talk about and what we can talk about. When we ask questions to the European Commission as MEPs, we are often told that these are internal affairs in which the Commission cannot interfere. It should not be like this. Even if the issue in question concerns national responsibilities, the European Commission should say that these are issues that have consequences at the European level. It is clear that this mechanism prevents effective control on European policies, and that the “tyranny of the majority” that exists in the European Parliament is replicated in all European institutions. Even where the political content can be changed, for example in European elections , where a fact so relevant to the history of the European Parliament as the fact that for the first time the Parliament was constituted without all its members being able to sit, is not mentioned in the least. Oriol Junqueras, Toni Comin, Clara Ponsati and I were unable to take our seats in Parliament. It is a historical, illegal fact caused by this tyranny of the majority that creates situations where certain topics become taboo. The word taboo and the word democratic parliament are not compatible. And it is precisely of this burden that the European Parliament must free itself to begin to mature and to make citizens feel that this is a living place.

Unlike Hong Kong, Belarus and Venezuela, the European Union is still an area of freedom and your presence in Parliament is a proof of this. How therefore do you intend to exploit this advantage also with respect to the specific works of the Legal Commission?

Despite its shortcomings and limitations, it should be recognized that the European Union is one of the greatest spaces for dialogue and freedom guaranteed worldwide. This is obvious. But it’s not perfect. We are free MEPs thanks to the EU, but if it were for the Spanish state we would be in prison without any rights. Of course, if we can move freely – at least in theory – it is thanks to Schengen and the European area. Of course, a case like ours helps to popularize and extend the idea of what is at stake in Europe and in the European Parliament. I am happy that our case has attracted the attention of citizens who are interested in understanding and questioning what fundamental rights are so they can understand that when a legally elected MEP, who in our case represents more than a million voters, is prevented from going to a member state, the European Parliament does not represent them. Vice-versa, when a parliament and the European justice system guarantee the rights connected to active suffrage, the citizen is reconciled with his institutions. Therefore, there is hope.
In democracies it is important to give hope. In authoritarian regimes, hope is forbidden. In democracies, hope includes changing what may appear to be taboo. This is why people want to continue living in democracy. When an institution sends citizens the message “abandon all hope”, it is not on the right track. When an institution, despite its imperfections, retains the ability to generate hope, it means that it is on the right track. We are a project of hope, both for those who refer to the case of the Catalan people, and as defenders of the rights of those who voted for us. We are not defending our personal or deputy rights. We are defending the rights of more than a million people to be represented. Therefore, we must have the same rights as the other elected officials, otherwise it is in this way that categories among citizens are created. Citizens who vote well and citizens who vote badly, depending on what the majority likes or dislikes. This is why it is important to be able to speak publicly about our case, because, I insist, it goes to the root of the European democratic project.

In conclusion, if Madrid proposed to you to dialogue today, following the example of what happened on the request for Scottish independence between Edinburgh and London, what would you do?

I would say yes immediately. This was my first proposal, it was the proposal of the Catalan parliament and this is precisely where the consensus of the majority of Catalans, separatist or not, lies. This way it would no longer be a problem in Catalonia given the huge consensus on this. If the Spanish state said: “ok, let’s do like the United Kingdom, let’s try to understand how to organize this referendum, when it is asked, what question do we ask, what majority is needed, what conditions”, tomorrow I would sit at the negotiating table. We have been waiting for such a response from Spain for many years and it would be an intelligent response that would bring benefits to both sides and consequently to all of Europe.

Translation: Asia Jane Leigh

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