The former deputy leader of Catalonia, jailed in Spain for helping to orchestrate an illegal independence referendum, had the right to ask the European Parliament whether to uphold his immunity, an adviser to the European Court of Justice said on Tuesday.
The advice from Advocate General Maciej Szpunar is a boost for the Catalan separatist movement and Oriol Junqueras, who was voted into the European Parliament in May despite being detained in Spain since 2017 after an illegal independence referendum.
He was sentenced to 13 years in prison in October, alongside a number of other Catalan leaders - sentences which provoked outrage in Catalonia, sparking weeks of demonstrations and protests that are still ongoing today.
Szpunar said Junqueras’s conviction had brought his mandate as a European Parliament member (MEP) to an end, but that he had been tried and convicted without the parliament having been given the opportunity to decide on his immunity.
The opinion, if followed by the court, would appear to give Junqueras grounds to challenge his conviction, but it was not clear if it would be enough to overturn it.
What the advice from the Advocate General means
"This is a major win for the separatists in Catalonia, who really feel that Brussels and the European Union have left them to the mercy of the Spanish government," explains Euronews' Brussels correspondent Jack Parrock.
"He essentially got voted in by voters in Spain but was never able to swear on the constitution in order to become an MEP as the Spanish authorities insist he must have done.
"What the advocate general is saying is that's not down to the Spanish authorities and it's actually down to the voters.
"If he is allowed to stand, then he might have immunity as an MEP, meaning he could challenge his imprisonment in Spain, in Spanish courts."
Immunity, in this case, means an MEP cannot be subject to detention or legal proceedings because of views expressed or votes cast, although it does not apply to an MEP who has committed an offence.
The European Court of Justice, the EU’s highest court, is not bound by the advocate generals’ opinions, but judges do tend to follow them in most cases. The court normally gives its verdict within two to four months of the opinion.
After Junqueras was elected in European Parliament elections in May, Spain’s Supreme Court did not allow him to leave prison to take an oath to respect the Spanish constitution, as those elected in Spain are required to do. As he had not taken the oath, the electoral commission declared the seat vacant.
Catalonia protests continue to rage
Meanwhile, French police have now been caught up in the Catalan protests against the sentencing of Junqueras and nine of his colleagues last month.
French riot police clashed with Catalan pro-independence demonstrators on Tuesday who had blocked a major road link connecting France and Spain for nearly 24 hours.
Police on the French side of the border at La Jonquera pushed protesters to the Spanish side.