Reading the tea leaves of the Court of Justice of the European Union
Toni Strubell is a former MP in the Catalan Parliament, journalist, and author of What Catalans Want
Núria Bassa Camps is a Catalan writer and photographer
Llegeix en català aqui
As announced, Monday 31 January saw the announcement of the CJEU sentence regarding the extradition of ex Catalan government minister Lluís Puig –currently residing in Belgium– in association with the 2017 Independence Referendum trial. The court had been asked by Spanish Supreme Court magistrate Pablo Llarena to answer seven questions about procedures regarding Euopean Extradition Orders in the wake of Spain’s multiple failures (Belgium, Scotland, Italy, Germany) to get exiled Catalan ministers extradited. This sentence had been long awaited by the Spanish Supreme Court as the basis on which to finally get them extradited, especially president Carles Puigdemont. Indeed, his much cherished imprisonment is the long sought after goal for Spanish unionism across the board, from government “socialists” to far-right VOX. And though the CJEU’s resolutions on Llarena’s queries were originally expected to clear up the extradition issue (prior to next March’s crucial decision about withdrawing or maintaining Puigdemont and fellow MEP’s parliamentary immunity), they have actually turned out to be relatively inconclusive and open-ended. More interestingly, they may serve to introduce new jurisprudence regarding extradition criteria that may well prove vital in continuing to capsize Llarena’s extradition pleas and, in a wider sense, in providing arguments that might grant minority groups greater guarantees against judicial and political persecution and abuse.
A first impression of the resolution, however, as the court president read it out in Spanish, did not seem like good news for Puigdemont’s cause. The opening paragraphs and first resolutions of the hearing seemed to make it clear that Spain’s Supreme Court magistrate Llarena was to be granted every right to continue issuing international extradition pleas against the Catalan exiles (primarily Puigdemont, Ponsatí, Comín and Puig). It even went so far as to suggest that the Belgian courts, that had refused to extradite Puigdemont before, had “exceded” their right to refuse the extradition call made by a fellow member, suggesting that mutual trust and automatic positive response to such calls should be encouraged in the future. Logically, this was enough to unleash enthusiastic applause for the new sentence in Madrid and unionist media in general. But as the fuller picture emerged, as so often happens in extensive court sentences eager to appear “balanced”, there soon appeared paragraphs in the sentence that should have made those media more wary. For alongside the call for “mutual compliance”, there also emerged an insistance on the need to offer stricter guarantees to avoid any form of injustice or ill treatment of minority groups. Wasn’t this some kind of wink at the Belgian court’s refusal to extradite Catalan political exiles? And though in general representatives of Madrid’s Supreme Court and mainstream media have ignored this, a statement made last Wednesday 1 February by the State Prosecutor, Álvaro García Ortiz was most eloquent in admitting that the Luxembourg court’s sentence was a very real obstacle for the extradition of Puigdemont.
Indeed, some paragraphs in the sentence in no way seemed to back easier extradition measures and actually went as far as to suggest possible reasons why they might be refused, an element apparently absent from former documents. One law professor even spoke of an “elegant” snub of Madrid’s demands. So was this a mere safety valve aimed at offering “coverage” to the court’s decisions and shaking off responsibility for any possible abuse in the future? Or, on the other hand, was it excellent fuel for future refusals? Some observers –not surprisingly, Puigdemont’s own lawyers amongst them– even saw elements in the resolutions that could lead to legislative novelties in the sense that they might provide a solid base on which to construct legal protection for particular kinds of minority groups. Why else would the text have introduced the tongue-twisting expression “Objectively Identifiable Group” then, in reference to groups that are worthy of protection against extradition (and about which so many jokes have already sprung up in the Catalan social media?). Could this not be a reference to the two million plus voters that took part in the 2017 Catalan Referendum? Or indeed, to the regular voting independentist majority in Catalonia (52%) that has been systematically stigmatized, downstaged and insulted by Madrid’s media and parties?
More importantly, we cannot avoid associating the term “Objectively Identifiable Group” with the constant state discrimination pointed to in a United Nation’s Arbitrary Detentions Group resolution in relation to the situation in Catalonia. Other insitutions too, such as the Council of Europe, have spoken of the need to protect national minorities such as Catalonia’s from such abuse. The very fact that the Monday’s CJEU sentence should have specifically referred to the UN’s resolution could be seen to be “innocent” –though not inadverted– ammunition for courts such as Belgium’s to continue refusing Puigdemont and his colleagues’ extradition. One cannot help feeling that if Belgium felt justified in refusing extradition for Puigdemont long before the UN’s document appeared, today that decision should be reinforced rather than undermined. Even sceptical experts such as Joan Queralt see Belgium’s position strengthened despite the turbulence a fresh decision might cause amongst EU state members as regards exisiting extradition feuds. But whatever the case, one thing is for sure. No one but the more vengeful Spanish see Puigdemont’s extradition as something immediate. When all is said and done, he is the president who allowed his people to make a democratic decision while the Spanish sent in 9000 riot police to beat us voters and smash ballot boxes. No outcome can be discarded. But to hand over politicians to be tried by a state capable of such repression might not look too good on anyone’s CV, not even a CJEU judge’s one. Hence the indefinition and effective “stale mate” that so many observers have seen last Monday’s CJEU resolution to have resulted in.