European Court of Justice grants immunity to jailed Catalan MEP-elect Oriol Junqueras

Luxembourg judges say Spain's judiciary should have asked EU Parliament for permission if they wanted to continue with politician's provisional imprisonment

Oriol Junqueras during a press conference live streamed while he was in prison (by Andrea Zamorano)
Oriol Junqueras during a press conference live streamed while he was in prison (by Andrea Zamorano) / ACN

ACN | Barcelona

December 19, 2019 10:02 AM

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has granted immunity to jailed Catalan pro-independence MEP-elect Oriol Junqueras.

In a decision made public on Thursday morning, EU top judges say that the politician had immunity from the moment he was announced a winner in the May 26 vote and elected as an MEP – and thus, he should have been freed as soon as he got his seat following the election.

At that time, he was in provisional jail – and the ECJ says that if Spain's judiciary wanted to keep him behind bars, they should have asked the European Parliament for permission, which did not happen.

Yet, the EU court ruling came with Junqueras already serving a prison sentence and with him barred from public office, which gives uncertainty on whether the Spanish judiciary will take any step after Luxembourg decision.

The head of the pro-independence ERC party was sentenced to 13 years in prison for sedition by Spain's Supreme Court in October for his role in the failed 2017 independence bid, when he was vice president of the Catalan government.

He was elected as a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) in May 2019, while he was still being detained in provisional jail. Spanish authorities did not release him from prison in order to let him take the oath and take up his seat in the European Parliament.

Spain’s officials argued that an MEP only enjoys parliamentary immunity once the entire swearing in process is concluded, while Junqueras believed his immunity came into effect from the moment the official vote results were declared. Thursday morning’s ruling has sided with the jailed leader.

Repercussions for Puigdemont and Comín

The ECJ's ruling will also have a bearing on the situation of exiled former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and former health minister Toni Comín. Both also won seats in the European Parliament in May, and have been prevented from taking up their seats.

Puigdemont and Comín are fighting extradition from Belgium, where they went after the 2017 independence bid, and this week the Belgian court handling their case delayed their extradition hearing until February 3, after the ECJ has ruled on Junqueras' immunity.

Yet, it is far from clear how the favorable ruling for Junqueras might affect the two exiled MEPs-elect, as Spain's Supreme Court insisted in November that they do not have parliamentary immunity despite the views of the ECJ's advocate general.

EU chamber under pressure

The European Parliament speaker, David Sassoli, has pledged to "comply with the law," saying in November that he is willing to "review" his opinion on the status of the Catalan pro-independence MEPs-elect "if necessary."

Earlier in the month, Junqueras appealed to the EU's General Court against Sassoli's declaring himself "not competent" to defend his political immunity as an elected MEP in the speaker's response to an urgent petition to do so in the EU chamber.

Split opinions

MEPs recently consulted by the Catalan News Agency were split on the matter. Deputy speaker of the EU parliament and Green Party member, Heidi Hautala, warned of member states trying to "condition and restrict" an elected member's mandate.

Socialist MEP and head of the EU's Committee on Civil Liberties, Juan Fernando López Aguilar, pointed out that while the advocate general's advice is not binding, "the Court of Justice has the final say," and that as a member state Spain is "bound by European law."

Yet, MEP for the unionist PP party, Dolors Montserrat, insisted that the state authorities have the final say on who represents them in the EU chamber, and that Puigdemont and Comín "have to make to make their cases to the Spanish judiciary" to be accepted as MEPs.