100 days of a “government in exile”
Puigdemont has had a European arrest warrant, taken part in a Catalan election from Belgium and travelled to Copenhagen
Only two days had passed since the Catalan Parliament declared independence, and one since the Spanish government had removed Carles Puigdemont from office and dissolved self-rule in the country. It was October 29, and the deposed Catalan president decided to get out of Catalonia. His destination was Brussels. When he got there it remained uncertain whether he would, or could, stay for long. But this Tuesday marked the first 100 days since Puigdemont set up camp in the the European capital, establishing the so-called “Catalan government in exile” with the deposed ministers Comín, Puig, Ponsatí and Serret.
First press conference
Their time in Belgium has been intense. Only two days after they landed in Brussels, they made the main purpose of their stay clear: acting with “freedom and security.” In a packed press conference in Brussels, they said they were aiming to make the Catalan cause international and also called on the EU to “react” to Spain’s measures against Catalonia’s self-rule. This has been a recurrent theme in appeals made throughout the last 100 days.
However, European institutions have made no move to support the pro-independence movement so far, although arguably their cause is now far more well-known worldwide, especially in Belgium. What they have achieved for sure is more “freedom and security” than if they had stayed in Catalonia. On November 2 all their colleagues in the last Catalan cabinet who stayed in the country were sentenced to pre-trial prison by the Spanish National Court. They all have charges of rebellion, sedition, and misuse of funds hanging over their heads.
Differences between Belgian and Spanish justice systems arise
Immediately afterwards the same Spanish judge overseeing the independence case issued a European arrest warrant for Puigdemont and his ministers. Yet the Belgian magistrate in charge of the case decided against remanding them in custody while considering their extradition. This was the first sign that the Belgian and the Spanish justice systems were approaching the issue differently. Indeed, the Belgian prosecutor ruled out corruption charges for the members of the deposed Catalan government. In a final hearing on December 4, the attorney general asked them to be extradited, but not accepting all charges that they were being accused of in Spain. The judge said the final decision on their extradition would be announced on December 14.
Failed European arrest warrant
One day after the hearing, though, the Spanish Supreme Court withdrew the European arrest warrant. If they had been extradited, judges in Spain would have been able to judge them for the offenses accepted by Belgium. According to Puigdemont, the withdrawal was out of fear of "looking ridiculous, of losing."
Without any European arrest warrant held against them, the five deposed government members could take part in the December 21 Catalan election – but via video from Brussels, as the arrest warrant was still active on Spanish soil. Puigdemont ran for Junts per Catalunya, a ticket based on the PDeCAT party and some independent candidates. Lluís Puig and Clara Ponsatí enrolled in the candidacy, while Toni Comín and Meritxell Serret joined pro-independence Esquerra.
The polls looked gloomy for Puigdemont and the pro-independence bloc when the elections were called by Mariano Rajoy. But in the end, Junts per Catalunya came second with 34 seats, two ahead of Esquerra, with 32. The first party in the chamber was Ciutadans, with 36, but the forces for a Catalan state kept the majority in the Parliament.
How to swear Puigdemont in?
As a result, on January 22 the new speaker in the chamber nominated Puigdemont as the “only candidate” for president. Yet the Spanish government challenged this decision and the Spanish Constitutional Court still has to take a final decision on the issue. The investiture debate was called for January 30, and it was uncertain whether Puigdemont would try to be sworn in at a distance or would turn up in Parliament at the risk of being incarcerated. In the end, none of this happened, as the speaker postponed the debate, and the pro-independence parties are now discussing how to swear in an MP who can effectively take office.
The Spanish authorities strengthened police controls in the Catalan-French borders and around the Catalan Parliament in the run-up to the delayed investiture debate. Madrid wanted to arrest Puigdemont even if he was hiding “inside the trunk of a car.” The Catalan deposed president did not turn up, but he did travel to Denmark for a conference. Amid concerns that a new European arrest warrant would be issued by a Spanish judge, Puigdemont travelled to Copenhagen. Nothing happened, though, so he demonstrated that he can travel around Europe freely… although returning back home is, 100 days after his move, unthinkable if he wants to keep his freedom.