"Where do our votes go if after what we choose, they (elected members) cannot exercise their role? To the river," said Santiago Solsona, pointing to the riverbed in Strasbourg.
The 54-year-old Catalan lawyer and his wife were in front of the European parliament on Tuesday morning, joining thousands of protesters to demonstrate against the exclusion of three pro-independence leaders and elected MEPs from the inaugural session of the new European Parliament.
The elected MEPs in question are Carles Puigdemont, former president of the Government of Catalonia and former councilor Toni Comín who live in Belgium to escape a Spanish arrest warrant after the attempted secession of 2017. The third MEP is Oriol Junqueras, the former vice president of the Generalitat who is in detention awaiting sentencing.
The inaugural session of the new legislature started on Tuesday and is hosting the 751 MEPs elected at the end of May. The session has been marked by three empty seats of Catalan politicians, elected in Spain but whose names were not on the official list of MEPs sent to the parliament by Madrid.
Waving the flag of Catalonia, at least 4,000 people shouted slogans including Spain is a dictatorship. The French news agency AFP reported that a stage had been set up in front of the institution where police officers were deployed. Public transport could not reach the oval "hollow tower".
Protesters say they had spent several hours making the journey from Catalonia. "It's a working day in Catalonia, so many people who wanted to come couldn't make it. There are no direct flights, so people had to come with either 15 hour bus or car trips, or take a plane to other places and then drive to Strasbourg," a protester named Pepi told Euronews.
Catalan foreign minister Alfred Bosch said that this was no longer an internal Spanish affair, but a European affair. "People voted for them freely, free European citizens voting for free European representatives and now the terrible contradiction is that they can't come here to represent their voters. Thousands of people are here to protest because they think their rights as voters have been denied," he said.
The Spanish electoral body had blocked Puigdemont and other former members of the Catalan government from running as candidates as they were not living in Spain. But in early May, a Spanish court ruled that they could contest the elections.