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Carles Puigdemont: European Parliament to announce result of vote on Catalan leader's immunity

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Carles Puigdemont faces a moment of truth in the European Parliament.
Carles Puigdemont faces a moment of truth in the European Parliament.   -   Copyright  JOHN THYS/AFP or licensors
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This article is from Monday. MEPs have voted to lift the Catalan politicians' immunity -- click here for the new story.

Carles Puigdemont, the former leader of Catalonia, faces a moment of truth as the European Parliament is due to announce the result of a vote on whether or not to lift his parliamentary immunity.

MEPS held a secret ballot on Monday evening and the outcome is expected to be declared on Tuesday at around 0900 CET.

If the plenary adopts a waiver to strip the politician of his special protection, the Spanish authorities will move to reactivate a European Arrest Warrant (EAS) to bring him back to the country and put him on trial. The extradition will have to be decided first by the Belgian justice system.

In Spain, Puigdemont stands accused of sedition and misuse of public funds. Similar charges have been filed against another two separatists, Antoni Comín and Clara Ponsatí, who also risk losing their immunity.

Regardless of the outcome, the three will retain their status as Members of the European Parliament for the time being.

The vote is focused on the report written by Bulgarian MEP Angel Dzhambazki, who belongs to the eurosceptic group European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). Official results are expected Tuesday morning.

The report was approved last month by the parliament's Committee on Legal Affairs (JURI). 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 legislators. Therefore, they noted, immunity from prosecution does not apply to their case.

Fifteen MEPs of the committee voted in favour of lifting immunity, with eight opposing and two abstaining.

While that vote was secret, the numbers indicate that a simple majority against Piedmont will be likely replicated in the hemicycle.

The three main parties (EPP, S&D and Renew Europe) of the European Parliament, which together hold more than half the seats, have long opposed the protection afforded to the Catalan politicians.

However, these parties are large and diverse, and differences of opinion are expected to happen. Spanish MEP Izaskun Bilbao, who seats with the liberal Renew Europe, has already said she will vote against the waiver. "Political problems are not resolved through sentences but with dialogue and politics," she wrote on Twitter.

The aforementioned ECR group, which includes MEPs from the Spanish far-right party Vox, is also poised to vote in favour of lifting the immunity, although the Flemish separatist N-VA, a close ally of Puigdemont, is certain to break the party's discipline.

The Greens and The Left are widely expected to move against the waiver. The Greens/EFA group accommodates MEPs from Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ECR), another Catalan pro-independence party.

Puigdemont, Comín and Ponsatí are non-attached MEPs, a condition that has worked to their disadvantage during the whole legal process.

With these challenging numbers in mind, the trio has been carrying out a PR campaign to convince their fellow parliamentarians to vote in their favour in order to maintain their immunity or, at least, to make the result as tight as possible.

Brussels has been a favourite stage for the Catalan independence movement, which has used the capital to raise the international profile of their political crusade.

"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," Puigdemont told Euronews last month, after the JURI committee's vote.

What happens next?

Monday's vote will close a chapter in the long battle that the three Catalan politicians have been waging in order to avoid extradition to Spain. But another phase will open.

If MEPs decide to lift their colleagues' immunity, the trio will become liable to prosecution and trial. The vote will not equate to a guilty verdict since MEPs are not judging the background of the case.

The Spanish authorities have been waiting for the plenary's vote to know if they can reactivate the European Search Warrant placed over Puigdemont for sedition and misuse of public funds during the 2017 illegal independence referendum in Catalonia and the unilateral declaration of independence. As the then-leader of the region, Puigdemont himself pronounced that declaration.

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.

The legal team of Puigdemont is putting its hopes on the precedent set by the case of Lluís Puig, another Catalan politician wanted in Spain.

In a surprising twist earlier this year, Belgium rejected the extradition of Puig arguing that the Spanish Supreme Court was not competent to judge him and there was a risk of not respecting his presumption of innocence.

Spanish judge Pablo Llarena, of the Supreme Court, disagreed with this decision. To avoid a similar outcome, Llarena has referred the matter to the EU Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling to determine whether the Belgian justice system is applying the warrant in the correct manner.

Llarena wants Luxembourg (the seat of the ECJ) to voice its opinion on Puigdemont before moving further with the arrest warrant.

The legal battle will be complex and take many months to resolve. If the Belgian justice system ends up denying Spain's request, the three Catalan MEPs will be able to stay inside the country as MEPs - but without their special immunity.

Only a final judgment in Spain could take away their seats in the hemicycle.