Catalonia's former leader Carles Puigdemont has told Euronews he will continue fighting after Members of the European Parliament voted to lift his immunity from prosecution.
He fled Spain after the north-east region declared independence following a 2O17 referendum that Madrid considered illegal.
Puigdemont, accused of sedition and misuse of public funds in Spain, has since become an MEP and is using immunity protection that comes with the role to avoid being summoned back to Spain and standing trial.
But, on Tuesday, MEPs on a European Parliament committee voted to lift his and two other Spanish politicians' immunity.
It will now go to a full vote before all the MEPs of the European Parliament next month, where a simple majority will be required.
'Fight until the last minute'
Puigdemont has vowed to continue his defence.
"We’re going to fight this battle until the last minute, whether it’s in the European Parliament or in the [European] Court of Luxembourg if we have to go there," he told Euronews.
"This is not about supporting Catalonia’s independence, but about supporting political minorities and their right to express themselves and be represented, which the big majorities enjoy."
Puigdemont claimed parliamentary proceedings have been unfair and plagued by irregularities.
He argues that the committee's chair, Adrián Vázquez Lázara, a liberal Spanish MEP, has been hostile towards the three MEPs and that the rapporteur of the file, Bulgarian MEP Angel Dzhambazki, is too close to Vox, the Spanish far-right party that vehemently opposes the Catalan independence movement. Both Dzhambazki and Vox belong to the European Conservatives and Reformists Group.
"The presumption of impartiality has been dynamited," Puigdemont said.
He said the EU had been "kidnapped by states and by two or three big parties" and "cannot connect with the people’s will".
But he still has faith in the bloc.
"I will never lose hope because the future of Europe is the European Union," he added. "Despite its imperfections, there is no better space of freedoms in the world than the European Union."
Ahead of next month's vote, the teams of Puigdemont and the two other Catalan MEPs are distributing booklets inside the European Parliament in a bid to convince their fellow lawmakers.
If MEPs move to waive the trio's immunity, Spanish authorities will immediately reactivate the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) to extradite the three politicians and put them on trial. However, the extradition has to be first approved by a Belgian judge.
In Spain, nine Catalan pro-separatist leaders and activists have already been found guilty of sedition and given prison sentences of between 9 and 13 years. Puigdemont, Comín and Ponsatí were supposed to be part of that same trial, but their exile made it impossible.
Why did the committee vote to lift immunity?
The Committee on Legal Affairs at the European Parliament recommended lifting the parliamentary immunity of the three Catalan MEPs on Tuesday.
Puigdemont stands accused of sedition and misuse of public funds. Similar charges have been filed against the other two, Toni Comín and Clara Ponsatí.
The committee concluded the events involving the three MEPs took place before they entered the European Parliament and the accusations are not related to their activities as European Parliament legislators. Therefore, the committee holds the belief that immunity from prosecution does not apply to their case.
Fifteen MEPs voted in favour of lifting immunity, with eight opposing and two abstaining.
The matter will now go before all MEPs.
The three main parties (EPP, S&D and Renew Europe) of the European Parliament, which hold more than half the seats in the hemicycle, have long opposed the protection afforded to the Catalan politicians.
Reacting to Puigdemont's allegations, Spanish MEP Vázquez Lázara, who currently chairs the Committee on Legal Affairs, said the process has been "totally transparent", "serious" and "clean".
Vázquez Lázara says the committee's proceedings did not turn into a "circus" and that its members acted according to EU law.
"We have demonstrated that in the European Parliament, the rules are followed," he told Euronews.
He said the committee did not evaluate if the three Catalan leaders were guilty or innocent, but simply focused on two elements: whether the request to lift the immunity was based on a vote or opinion made by the MEPs in such capacity, and whether the judicial process began before or after the three became EU lawmakers.
Both elements, Vázquez Lázara says, compelled a majority of committee members to recommend the waiver of immunity.
He now expects the plenary to follow their decision but prefers to avoid speculation.
The Puigdemont file is one of many being handled by the Committee on Legal Affairs. Others include the case of Giannis Lagos, a Greek MEP who in October 2020 was found guilty of running the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn and was sentenced to 13 years in jail. The Greek authorities have already submitted a request to the European Parliament to lift his immunity so they can bring him back to Greece and prosecute him.