Toni Strubell – A Major Breakthrough for Catalans

On Monday the elected Catalan representatives to the European Parliament Carles Puigdemont  and Toni Comín took up their seats after being hindered by the Spanish Social Democrat government for seven months. The Social Democrats are still blocking Oriol Junqueras, which is being tolerated by Podemos, which has joined in a coalition with the Spanish Social Democrats.

Toni Strubell  is a former MP in the Catalan Parliament, journalist, and author of What Catalans Want

Photo by Núria Bassa

Monday 13th January may well go down in Catalan history books as the day things started to change as regards the Spanish crack-down in the wake of October 1st 2017 Indy Referendum. Trying and jailing the independentist movement’s principal leaders –both political and social- began that very month. They were jailed, expelled from governments and parliaments and stripped of many of their rights, including the right to hold public office. This was the case, for example, of the Catalan Parliament speaker, Carme Forcadell, who has already served two years of an eleven and a half-year prison sentence for having enabled a parliamentary debate to take place. An outcome that it would be hard to imagine happening in any other European country right now and that owes so very much to the blind eye turned by the EU to the Catalan issue, a field where the abuse of human rights is widespread according to many international observers including Amnesty International and the the United Nation’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions.

Now, in contrast, the Catalan movement has achieved a major victory in overcoming the mass exclusion of its leaders by placing four (soon maybe even five) of them in Europe’s main institution, the European Parliament. Two of these new MEPs were amongst those who chose the path of exile, rather than a a serious risk of imprisonment once repression was looming up. They took up their seats in the European Parliament session held here in Strasbourg last Monday with the support of hundreds of Catalan supporters who had made the 1000-km trip to witness the event. They did so as members of Junts per Catalunya, the party that won the European elections in Catalonia. One of them is president Carles Puigdemont himself, a man permanently targeted in the Spanish media as the “criminal” responsible for calling the Referendum.

Ex-socialist Toni Comín, minister of Health and leader of the up-and-coming Catalan Republican Council, was the man accompanying Puigdemont, while two further indy MEPs are also waiting to take their seats in the near future. One is Saint Andrews-based Clara Ponsatí, who will take up her seat once Brexit makes space for fresh MEPs. She, like other leaders exiled around Europe, has so far been successful in staving off Madrid Euro-orders for her capture. The other new MEP could be ex Vice President Oriol Junqueras, now in a Spanish jail, whose access to the Parliament is somewhat more complicated than the others’ because, despite European High Court of Justice’s validation of his legitimacy to a European seat – and the immunity that theoretically accompanies that condition- he has the added obstacle of the Spanish Supreme Court’s refusal to allow him to take up his seat. A decision which President Sassoli has so far respected in attendance of further legal action by Junqueras’ lawyers.

Last 13th January hundreds of elated Catalans celebrated the entrance of Puigdemont and Comin into the European Parliament in Strasburg. A historical moment for many Catalans. But the immediate future still bears major obstacles for the Catalan indy cause in its confrontation with Spain’s all-powerful and politicized judiciary and the inter-state collaboration that is still such a negative factor for the democratic growth of Europe and its institutions. As President Puigdemont himself said last Monday, in a meeting staged before the European Parliament: “Our struggle is for the rights of Catalans. But it is also for democracy in Europe. Three years ago I warned Europe that if it continued to turn a blind eye on the Catalan issue, a major conflict would break out in the very heart of Europe. Now this has happened before their very eyes. And now we have reached the heart of Europe to defend the right to self-determination in Europe and the European Parliament can no longer ignore us”. Whatever the outcome, the coming months will be crucial for the future as the four persecuted Catalan indy MEPs -Puigdemont, Comín, Junqueras and Ponsatí- will now have to face their possible suspension by the Parliament if Spain, and State-orientated EU officialdom, have their way. Certainly, that is the next challenge what awaits Catalonia on its long path to sovereignty within a more democratic and truly federal Europe.

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