2017 referendum leaders, 5 years in exile

Former president Puigdemont, with no return on horizon, says campaign to 'confront Spain' from Belgium will continue

Exiled Catalan politicians Lluís Puig and Carles Puigdemont (by Gemma Tubert/Xavier Pi)
Exiled Catalan politicians Lluís Puig and Carles Puigdemont (by Gemma Tubert/Xavier Pi) / ACN
Guifré Jordan

Guifré Jordan | @enGuifre | Barcelona

October 31, 2022 04:09 PM

October 31, 2022 07:50 PM

Shock took hold of Catalonia on October 30, 2017, as word spread that the just-ousted president, Carles Puigdemont, may have left Catalonia to avoid potential arrest and a trial in Spain after his government had organized a non-authorized referendum on independence on October 1 and declared a Catalan republic on October 27.

A crammed press conference on October 31 in Brussels led by Puigdemont and some of his ministers confirmed the news. It was their first full day in the Belgian capital, where they aimed to "act with freedom and without threats," as the leader of a government just dissolved by Spain eplained.

Exactly five years have gone by, and Puigdemont and three of his former ministers – Lluís Puig, Clara Ponsatí and Toni Comín – still remain there, with the same commitment to continuing their campaign for independence abroad. 

"I have become more resilient facing adversity and I have many more reasons to continue confronting Spain, which does not seek to resolve the conflict but to wipe us out as a nation," the 2017 head of government wrote this weekend in a letter to mark the anniversary. 

He also said that he left Catalonia because "continuing the path decided by the people" could be best done abroad, referring to the fact that 90% of the residents who voted in the 2017 referendum opted to split from Spain – despite the low turnout of around 40%, the Spanish Constitutional Court outlawing the referendum, and the Spanish police crackdown during the day of the vote.

Some of his ministers stayed and ended up being sentenced to a decade in prison for sedition – of which they served three and a half years before being pardoned – but Puigdemont dodged charges of rebellion and sedition by going abroad and remains untried today.

Despite repeated attempts by Spanish courts, no judicial authority in any of Belgium, Germany, Italy, Scotland, or Switzerland have accepted extraditing the officials for the crimes Spain had requested.

Puigdemont, Ponsatí, Comín and Puig, all members or representatives of Junts, are in Brussels, while Esquerra's Marta Rovira has been in Switzerland since March 2018. 

As the charge of rebellion is understood to be dropped since those convicted were not found guilty of this crime, sedition remains the most serious accusation for which they may be tried. 

At the moment the Spanish government – led by the Socialists instead of the conservative People's Party since June 2018 – is considering lowering the penalty for the crime of sedition, coinciding with its need to gather support from pro-independence parties to pass its 2023 budget in congress.

Yet, while this could benefit him, Puigdemont rejected it in his recent letter. 

"I understand that me accepting a resolution [of the conflict] based on the reform of the criminal code could benefit Spain, but I cannot see anywhere how this would benefit the Catalan independence campaign."

"I do not seek or want this personal benefit," he pointed out, adding that accepting a personal solution would be "giving up," politically.

Puigdemont is currently an MEP and president of a private organization called Council for the Republic, a body that aims to "put forward political, social, cultural and economic activities aimed at establishing and executing an independent state in Catalonia in the form of a Republic."

On Monday, the Catalan Socialist party replied to the former president by saying that a potential reform of sedition in the criminal code "has never been thought to benefit anyone specific." 

For spokesperson Èlia Tortolero, these plans only aim to "update" the law to become more in line with "European standards."


In any case, even if the maximum sentence for sedition was lowered, Puigdemont may not be willing to return, according to his letter. 

Yet, he is still pending two EU court decisions that could reactivate his extradition case: the Luxembourg judges have to decide on whether the European Parliament lifted his immunity lawfully last year, and on the other hand, whether Belgium was right in denying the extradition of former minister Puig. 

A negative result in one or both decisions could reopen his case – but by no means automatically extradite him. However, positive results in both cases could guarantee a safe future for the politician in the medium- or long-term in Belgium.