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Spain’s amnesty law sparks heated debate in European Parliament

Iratxe García, president of the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament
Iratxe García, president of the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament Copyright Mathieu CUGNOT/ European Union 2023 - Source : EP
Copyright Mathieu CUGNOT/ European Union 2023 - Source : EP
By Mared Gwyn JonesAida Sanchez Alonso
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Emotions ran high in the Strasbourg hemicycle on Wednesday as EU lawmakers clashed over Spain’s controversial amnesty law, part of a political deal with Catalan separatists to make Pedro Sánchez prime minister.

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The debate, convened by the right-leaning European People Party (EPP) saw right-wing lawmakers accuse allies of Sánchez, a socialist, of sacrificing the rule of law for political gains while socialist MEPs defended the amnesty bill as a key step in Spain's reconciliation with Catalan separatists.

Earlier this month, Catalan separatist party Junts per Catalunya (JxCat) - led by the exiled Carles Puigdemont, also a member of the European Parliament - offered seven of its votes in the Spanish parliament to back a Sánchez-led government in exchange for a controversial amnesty for Catalan politicians and activists who participated in a failed attempt at secession from Spain in 2017.

The law has sparked outrage among the Spanish opposition, who accuse Sánchez of cosying up to separatists and flouting the rule of law. Fierce protests have taken place in Spain's capital Madrid for the past twenty days.

Speaking to Euronews ahead of the debate, EPP president Manfred Weber said Sánchez had put his “personal egoism” in front of national interests by signing a “legally unthinkable” text.

Weber claimed people in Spain are "no longer equal before the law," and accused Sánchez of allowing "corruption, violence and terrorism" to go unpunished.

"The socialists and the left have lost all credibility to defend the rule of law in Europe," he added.

Close Sánchez ally Iratxe García, president of the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, accused Weber of lying by claiming crimes of terrorism would be absolved under the plans, citing Article 2c of the draft amnesty bill which explicitly says acts of terrorism would be excluded from the law's application.

The law could however exonerate an unconfirmed number of crimes including embezzlement, disobedience and maladministration.

"Mr Weber, lying is not ok, and you have lied," she said to the jeers of the conservatives. "There is no greater attack on the rule of law than your alliance with the extreme right."

"The main problem of the Partido Popular (PP) and Vox," she went on, referring to the main political forces on the Spanish right, "is that they are incapable of understanding Spain. They cannot understand that the greatness of Spain lies in its diversity and plurality."

Sources from Spain's socialist party (PSOE) told Euronews that the right had "failed in its attempt to get the European Commission to oppose the proposed amnesty law."

Also in Strasbourg on Wednesday was the leader of Spanish far-right party Vox, Santiago Abascal, who has drawn harsh criticism over recent days for encouraging protesters to disobey police orders during demonstrations.

“We hope the Spanish parliament will be asked to provide explanations and that the Commission will act with the same diligence as in the case of Poland and Hungary," he told reporters.

All eyes on the Commission

EU justice commissioner Didier Reynders, whose team is currently scrutinising the draft amnesty law to ensure compliance with the bloc's rule of law rulebook, also intervened during the debate, but refrained from disclosing details of his team's preliminary assessment.

He reiterated the Commission had received complaints "by a large number of citizens and stakeholders" expressing concerns over whether the law and the "special committees of the parliament" it foresees comply with the EU's fundamental values.

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"We will carry out our analysis carefully, independently, and objectively to determine compliance with EU law," Reynders affirmed.

Sánchez’s newly-appointed justice minister Félix Bolaños is expected to meet Reynders and values and transparency commissioner Věra Jourová in Brussels next week to provide clarifications on the amnesty bill, after Reynders addressed a letter to Spanish ministers earlier this month requesting more information.

The bloc can sanction member states for rule of law breaches under Article 7 of the EU treaties and is currently withholding funds from both Hungary and Poland for democratic backsliding.

PP’s institutional vice-secretary Esteban González Pons accused Sánchez of endangering European funds earlier on Wednesday, including Spain’s staggering €163 billion allocation of the bloc’s flagship ‘Next Generation’ post-Covid recovery funds.

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But the Commission has so far refrained from disclosing its assessment of the proposed law, and no concerns regarding the erosion of the rule of law have been raised.

Lawfare under scrutiny

One of the most controversial aspects of the political deal struck between JxCat and the socialists is the reference to the concept of 'lawfare', or the strategic use of the law as an instrument to target political opponents.

JxCat's leader Carles Puigdemont wants Spain to introduce parliamentary commissions to investigate whether its courts had been unnecessarily heavy-handed in sentences made against the separatists in order to persecute pro-independence figures.

Legal experts have voiced concerns that this could significantly undermine the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers, as enshrined in Spain's constitution.

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But although no reference to lawfare is made in the text of the amnesty law, Reynders told the parliament that his team is also investigating the proposal to establish "parliamentary commissions."

He also called on Spain to implement the urgent judicial reforms made recommended as part of the Commission's annual rule of law report published in July.

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