Catalan leader Oriol Junqueras Picture: AFP/ANGEL NAVARRETE
Catalan leader Oriol Junqueras Picture: AFP/ANGEL NAVARRETE

Barcelona — A Catalan separatist leader jailed by Spain was entitled to immunity as a member of the European parliament, the EU’s highest court ruled on Thursday in a decision that could put Brussels on a collision course with Spanish authorities.

Oriol Junqueras was jailed for 13 years in October for his role in a 2017 Catalan independence referendum that was deemed illegal by Spanish courts. He was elected an MEP while in prison awaiting trial, and has not been able to take up his seat.

But the EU court ruled that anyone elected to the European parliament “enjoys immunities” to travel and take part in parliamentary sessions and an MEP cannot be subject to detention or legal proceedings because of views expressed or votes cast.

The decision by the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) could further foment an already bitter dispute between separatists in the Catalonia region and the national government in Madrid.

It comes at a sensitive time in Spanish politics, which are gridlocked after two inconclusive elections this year. The Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), led by Pedro Sánchez, has been courting the separatist party that Junqueras chairs, hoping to gather enough support to form government.

Junqueras’s Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Republican Left of Catalonia) party was quick to demand his release.

“Today’s decision is historic, clear and forceful,” Pere Aragonès, a senior party official, told reporters. “We will ask for the sentence to be voided.”

However the EU court did not examine Junqueras’s criminal case and sentencing. The ruling only responds to the Spanish supreme court’s questions on the impact of Junqueras being elected as a European lawmaker, a CJEU source said.

Its practical implications remain unclear, but the European parliament’s president David Sassoli called on Spanish authorities to comply with the ruling, describing it in Wednesday’s plenary session as “a very important ruling that directly affects the composition of this institution”.

Other Catalan leaders

The decision could have repercussions.

Two other Catalan politicians won European parliament seats in May but have also been unable to formalise their places because they will be detained if they return to Spain to collect their MEP papers. Carles Puigdemont and Antoni Comín have both lived in self-imposed exile in Belgium since arrest warrants were issued following the attempted secession.

“Democracy, the vote of the people, has won against authoritarian forces,” Puigdemont, Catalonia’s former head, tweeted on Thursday in response to the ruling.

Spain’s supreme court said it is studying the EU court ruling and will consult with parties ranging from the public prosecutor and the state attorney on how best to proceed. The acting SWP government said it had no immediate comment.

The EU court ruling said that if Spanish authorities had wanted to prevent Junqueras from travelling to the European parliament they would have had to request that the parliament waive his immunity.

The immunity does not apply to an MEP who has committed an offence. Junqueras was charged with committing an offence in 2017, before he was elected an MEP in May this year, but he was convicted in October of sedition and misuse of public funds.

In a separate ruling on Thursday, a Barcelona court ruled that the pro-independence leader of Catalonia’s regional government, Quim Torra, should be barred from holding public office for 18 months over his refusal to order the removal of separatist symbols from public buildings. Torra said he would appeal.

The ban could prompt snap elections in the region, in which Junqueras said he could stand as candidate.