European Parliament to debate Spain's amnesty deal next week over rule of law fears

Demonstrators hold Spanish flags before taking part in a protest organized by Sociedad Civil Catalana in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023.
Demonstrators hold Spanish flags before taking part in a protest organized by Sociedad Civil Catalana in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023. Copyright Emilio Morenatti/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Mared Gwyn Jones
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The European Parliament will hold a debate next week on the controversial amnesty deal struck between the Spanish socialists and Catalan separatists to make Pedro Sánchez prime minister.

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The debate has been requested by the parliament's biggest group - the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) - amid concerns about what it describes as "the beginning of the end for the rule of law" in Spain.

In a joint statement, the EPP's president Manfred Weber and the head of its Spanish delegation Dolors Montserrat said that the "amnesty pact risks breaching the separation of powers and undermining judicial independence," echoing concerns voiced in recent days by Spain's national council of the judiciary.

The EPP will likely secure the support of other right-leaning and centrist groups before the debate can be formally included in the agenda for next week's plenary sitting.

The Spanish socialists' deal, announced in Brussels last Thursday following weeks of intense negotiations, will see Catalan separatist party Junts per Catalunya (JxCat) offer seven of its votes to back a Sánchez-led government in exchange for a future amnesty for Catalan politicians and activists who participated in a failed attempt at secession from Spain in 2017.

It has drawn fierce criticism from opposition parties, who accuse Sánchez of undermining the rule of law by absolving crimes including embezzlement and maladministration for political gains. 

Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in Spain over the weekend in protest.

The amnesty bill was submitted before the Spanish parliament by the socialist party (PSOE) on Monday ahead of the vote on Sánchez's investiture, scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday this week (15 and 16 November).

A draft version of the bill shared by Spanish outlet eldiario.es on Monday suggests that the controversial concept of "lawfare", included in the political deal with JxCat in a major concession to Puigdemont, will not feature in the legal text of the amnesty bill.

Twenty right-leaning and centrist Spanish members of the European Parliament (MEPs) also wrote to European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Monday to denounce the deal for undermining the principle of equality before the law, and call on the EU institutions to "monitor and follow" the situation in Spain.

"The European Union should safeguard its fundamental principles and values and take steps to protect the rule of law," in accordance with the Union's treaties, the letter also says.

The MEPs claim that judicial proceedings and sanctions against 3,000 people would be scrapped as a result of the amnesty, including for crimes relating to corruption and terrorism.

In a major blow to Sánchez, the EU's top diplomat Josep Borrell strongly suggested on Monday that he opposed the amnesty deal.

Borrell - a Catalan socialist and Sánchez ally who was a vocal critic of the 2017 attempt at secession from Spain - said: "All those who know me in Spain and know my previous personal and political trajectory can imagine what I think."

"Given that I have not seen the amnesty law in its detail, I cannot say anything about it," he added.

"But I am already familiar with the political deals struck with two independentist parties, and those deals certainly cause a concern, or various concerns, because it is a complex and difficult problem about which I will eventually, not now, express my opinion."

'Lawfare' under scrutiny

The EPP-requested debate in the European Parliament will likely focus on the clause in the political deal that refers to 'lawfare' - the strategic use of the law as an instrument to target political opponents - included under the request of JxCat's leader Carles Puigdemont, who fled in exile to Belgium following the failed 2017 referendum.

According to the deal, parliamentary commissions would be established specifically to investigate whether any of the legal convictions made in relation to the 2017 secession attempt could be considered attempts at "lawfare".

But leaked drafts of the amnesty bill shared by Spanish media on Monday suggest the term will not appear in the legal text, as previously affirmed by Jaume Asens, the negotiator on behalf of the socialists' coalition partner Sumar.

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The inclusion of "lawfare" in the political deal has nonetheless been at the heart of criticism from analysts and legal experts, who say it would allow judicial decisions to be subjected to political interpretation, thereby significantly undermining the independence of the judiciary.

"As the associations of judges and prosecutors have claimed, it is nothing less than a serious threat to the judicial independence in Spain," the EPP group said on X.

"We have seen this before in Poland and we expect the European Commission to immediately make clear that for example the lawfare provisions are totally unacceptable," the group also said.

In their letter to von der Leyen, 20 MEPs say that all Spain's judicial associations, "from the most progressive to the most conservative" have rejected the reference to lawfare in a joint statement.

The Spanish Supreme Court also issued a statement on Monday emphasising the need for all institutions to "preserve and guarantee the independence of the judiciary," which cannot be maintained while other powers of the state exercise "oversight or supervision" over its work.

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The European Commission has refrained from commenting on the deal until the legal text of the amnesty bill is made available.

A letter sent last week by the EU justice commissioner Didier Reynders to Spanish ministers requested "more detailed information, notably as regards the personal, material and temporal scope of this envisaged law."

In response, Spain’s Presidency Minister Félix Bolaños said that the amnesty bill was a proposal from the parliamentary groups, and that the current caretaker status of the government prevented it from submitting bills to the parliament.

But with an investiture pencilled in for this week and the bill expected to be registered on Monday, the EU institutions will come under increasing pressure to take a position on the deal.

The bloc has in the past taken a strong stance on laws considered to undermine the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary in countries such as Poland.

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"We count on the European institutions as a space of democracy and freedom to stop this pact, which breaks the rule of law and the equality of citizens in Spain, as they have done before in other countries," the EPP said.

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