Puigdemont to become full-fledged MEP. What next?
Returning to Catalonia and a vote in the European parliament to allow his extradition process might unfold in the near future
"I don't know whether I will take 20 years to set foot on Spanish soil, but I know I won't take 20 years to set foot on Catalan soil." Carles Puigdemont made these remarks in July 2018 in Berlin, after Spain's attempt to extradite him from Germany on rebellion charges failed.
While some understood that the former Catalan president was assuming that his country would be independent within two decades, others guessed that at some point he would visit Northern Catalonia – the Catalan-speaking area in southern France, which roughly coincides with the Pyrénées-Orientales department, and which was officially part of Catalonia until 1659.
One and a half years later, his remarks might become a fact sooner than expected.
Jan 6: Puigdemont to become MEP
Puigdemont is set to become a full-fledged MEP on January 6, or in the days immediately afterwards, in time to attend the first European Parliament plenary session from January 13 in Strasbourg.
Last Friday he obtained his provisional accreditation, after the European Court of Justice ruled that not being able to take Spain's constitutional oath should not be a reason to prevent an MEP-elect from taking up their seat.
Immunity granted: freedom to travel within the EU
His status as a Member of the European Parliament will give him immunity, which in theory means two things: Puigdemont will be able to travel anywhere in the EU without being arrested, and Spain will have to ask the EU chamber for permission if they want to continue any judicial procedure against him.
By attending the Strasbourg plenary session, the pro-independence leader will set foot in France for the first time since the weekend of October 28-29, 2017, when he went into exile. He has also said that he is "very much looking forward" to doing some political event in Perpignan, Northern Catalonia, despite ruling out moving there.
"Even if the final vote [in the EU parliament] was in favor of dropping our immunity, the debate would cause more benefit than damage to us"
Toni Comín · Pro-independence MEP-elect
Yet, he has not revealed whether he will set foot in Catalonia again, since he is skeptical that Spain would abide by his immunity privileges, although in an interview on Monday he said he can now "perfectly well" travel to Spain.
Extradition process in Puigdemont's way
Yet, he has something to deal with before traveling freely throughout Europe and, especially, to Catalonia: his extradition process.
The Belgian court in charge of his case delayed the hearing on his extradition until February 3, in order to find out whether he is in the end to be accepted as an MEP.
But before that, Spain's Supreme Court is due to decide what to do with the European arrest warrant given the new situation.
Prosecutor asks Supreme Court to continue extradition process
The prosecutor asked on Monday for the court to maintain the extradition requests for both Puigdemont and Toni Comín, an exiled former minister who is also expected to be confirmed as an MEP. Prosecutors also requested Spanish judges to urge the European Parliament to suspend their immunity.
Additionally, they urge the Supreme Court to ask the Belgian authorities to postpone the decision on Puigdemont's extradition until the EU chamber decides whether to suspend the politicians' privileges.
MEPs to vote on Puigdemont's situation?
If the Supreme Court follows the prosecutor's recommendations, a new scenario might open up: the judges might be obliged to ask for official permission from the EU parliament to drop Puigdemont's immunity so that his extradition process can move forward, meaning that all MEPs would have to vote on his immunity in a plenary session.
If this were to happen, the former Catalan head of government would have fulfilled at least one of his aims: making the independence issue an international affair.
"Even if the final vote was in favor of dropping our immunity, the debate would cause more benefit than damage to us," said Puigdemont's ally Toni Comín on Saturday.
This hypothetical vote could also be forced if the exiled leaders were to travel to Catalonia on the back of their immunity and Spain's judiciary wanted to arrest and imprison them.
End of hopes to be reinstated as Catalan president this term
Apart from opening debates on his immunity and extradition, his condition of Member of the European Parliament will oblige him to step down as Catalan MP as both posts are incompatible.
With this, his chances to be reinstated as president this term will end, because the head of government has to be MP in order to be elected.
His party, Junts per Catalunya, and especially the current Catalan president, Quim Torra, named by Puigdemont himself, have reinstating their leader in the post as one of their main priorities.
The exiled politician was president from January 2016 to October 27, 2017, when he was ousted by Spain hours after the declaration of independence – within the following three days, Puigdemont had already moved to Belgium.
In early January, Spain's Supreme Court is expected to reveal its plans, while Puigdemont and Comín's status as MEPs will be confirmed, with Belgium's judiciary possibly making a decision on their extradition either in January or February.