The European Parliament has voted to lift the parliamentary immunity of former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and two other separatists.
It paves the way for further legal moves by Spain, where they face charges relating to the illegal independence referendum in 2017, to seek their extradition from Belgium.
Puigdemont, who has condemned the vote as a "sad day" for European democracy, stands accused of sedition and misuse of public funds. Similar charges have been filed against the two other separatists, former Catalan health minister Antoni Comín and ex-education minister Clara Ponsatí.
Madrid, which has welcomed the vote, is expected to move to reactivate a European Arrest Warrant (EAS) to bring the trio back to Spain for trial. The extradition will have to be decided first by the Belgian justice system. Spain has already referred the matter to the European Court of Justice.
The result was announced on Tuesday morning following a secret ballot held by MEPS on Monday evening. MEPS adopted a waiver to strip the politicians of their special protection.
In Puigdemont's case, MEPs voted by 400 in favour, to 248 against with 45 abstentions, to lift his immunity from prosecution. For Comín and Ponsatí there were 404 votes in favour of the waiver, 247 against, and 42 abstentions.
Madrid welcomes MEPs' vote
The Spanish government welcomed the result of the European Parliament's vote, claiming it showed that matters concerning Catalonia should be determined in Spain.
The MEPs' decision "sends a triple message", said Foreign Affairs Minister Arancha González Laya in a brief statement, one of which was that "Catalonia's problems are resolved in Spain, they are not resolved in Europe".
The Spanish government's approach as to "offer a hand to the Catalan political forces to find a solution through dialogue and negotiation," she added.
Puigdemont: 'Sad day' for European democracy
Puigdemont’s legal team plans to appeal against the loss of his immunity at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.
The ex-Catalan leader and his two colleagues condemned the vote at a news conference in Brussels on Tuesday.
"It is a sad day for the European Parliament. We have lost our immunity but the European Parliament has lost more than that, and as a result, European democracy too. This is a clear case of political prosecution," Puigdemont said.
"They (Spanish political leaders) say it is a judicial process, that there is a separation of powers, but it is driven by a higher intensity political and parliamentary strategies - and now the European Parliament has unfortunately fallen into this strategy."
The MEPs' vote approves the result of a ballot by a European parliamentary committee last month, which recommended the politicians' immunity be lifted, following a report by Bulgarian MEP Angel Dzhambazki.
The Committee on Legal Affairs (JURI) concluded that immunity from prosecution should not apply, as 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.
Puigdemont, Comín and Ponsatí are non-attached MEPs, a condition that has worked to their disadvantage during the whole legal process.
The trio carried 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.
The three main parties (EPP, S&D and Renew Europe) in the European Parliament, which together hold more than half the seats, have long opposed the protection afforded to the Catalan politicians. Despite differences of opinion within these large and diverse groups, the level of support proved insufficient.
"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.
The charges Puigdemont faces in Spain for sedition and misuse of public funds relate to the 2017 referendum in Catalonia and unilateral declaration of independence, which he pronounced as the then-leader of the region.
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.
What happens now?
The vote closes a chapter in the long battle that the three Catalan politicians have been waging in order to avoid extradition to Spain. But another phase opens, surrounded in uncertainty.
Deprived from their immunity, the trio becomes liable to prosecution and trial. The vote doesn't equate to a guilty verdict since MEPs were not judging the background of the case.
The Spanish authorities have been waiting for the parliament's decision in order to proceed with the European Arrest Warrant, but this time they will calculate their steps with more precision.
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 assessment. To avoid a similar outcome, Llarena has referred the matter to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) 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.