Spain’s Supreme Court blocks jailed Catalan separatist’s bid to take seat as MEP

Spain's Supreme Court on Thursday refused to recognise jailed Catalan separatist Oriol Junqueras as a European MP because of his October conviction over a failed 2017 independence bid.

Spain's Supreme Court blocks jailed Catalan separatist's bid to take seat as MEP
Oriol Junqueras attends the first plenary session of Spain's parliament last May. Photo: AFP

In a long-awaited ruling, the court said it would not authorise his temporary release from prison to collect his parliamentary credentials — in effect rejecting a December ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

The court said its ruling “implies the suspension of his status as a European parliamentarian”.

Junqueras won a seat in the European Parliament in May elections despite being in pre-trial detention in Spain on charges linked to his role in a banned Catalan referendum and a short-lived declaration of independence.

But he was prevented from leaving prison in June to attend a Spanish swearing-in ceremony and from travelling to Brussels to take up his post, prompting him to file an appeal.

Last month, the ECJ ruled that Spain should have let him out to receive his credentials after the May elections, saying that even jailed MEPs benefitted from parliamentary immunity — a ruling hailed by Catalan separatists.

But in its response to the ECJ, Spain's Supreme Court decided against allowing him out to collect his accreditation.

It said that the travelling privileges recognised by the ECJ were “not a protective shield against the sentence” and rejected any grounds for the invalidation of the Catalan separatists' trial, which finished a day before Junqueras was declared an MEP-elect, nor of the resulting sentence.   

Speaking to AFP in Brussels, a European Parliament spokeswoman confirmed receiving the ruling and said it would be “read and evaluated” by the relevant authorities.

MEPs surprised 

The ruling provoked an angry reaction from Junqueras' ERC party, which helped to get Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez through a tight investiture vote two days ago by abstaining.

“Shame on the Spanish justice system, it is a scandal!”, top party official Pere Aragones wrote on Twitter. “You cannot ignore the ECJ ruling.”    

And former Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium after the failed independence bid and received his own MEP accreditation last month, denounced it as “another very serious mistake”, saying Spain was displaying “flagrant disregard” for the ECJ.   

The ruling came two days after Junqueras was elected head of the European Free Alliance which with the Greens, comprises the fourth largest group in the European Parliament.

Greens/EFA co-president Ska Keller said she was “surprised” by the decision.   

“The sentence against Oriol Junqueras was imposed after his election to the European Parliament. He should have enjoyed immunity,” she said.    

“As an elected member of the European Parliament, Oriol Junqueras should be able to take his seat and represent those who voted for him.”

Political complications

The party's 13 lawmakers agreed on January 2 to abstain during Tuesday's confidence vote in a move that allowed Sanchez to be narrowly confirmed as premier with a margin of just two votes.

But holding only 155 of the parliament's 350 seats, Sanchez's new coalition government comprising his Socialists and the radical left-wing Podemos will struggle to push through legislation — its first order of business to pass
the long-overdue budget.   

It was a dispute over the budget in February last year that ended the fragile alliance backing Sanchez's first government, with Catalan separatists issuing a resounding no in a move that ultimately triggered a general

Thursday's ruling by the Supreme Court also disregarded an advisory opinion issued late last month by the state prosecutor's office, which said Junqueras should be allowed to travel to carry out the necessary formalities.

But it also said the court should approach the European Parliament “as soon as possible” to suspend his parliamentary immunity.



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The Euro celebrates its 20th anniversary

The euro on Saturday marked 20 years since people began to use the single European currency, overcoming initial doubts, price concerns and a debt crisis to spread across the region.

The Euro celebrates its 20th anniversary
The Euro is projected onto the walls of the European Central Bank in Brussels. Photo: Daniel Rolund/AFP

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen called the euro “a true symbol for the strength of Europe” while European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde described it as “a beacon of stability and solidity around the world”.

Euro banknotes and coins came into circulation in 12 countries on January 1, 2002, greeted by a mix of enthusiasm and scepticism from citizens who had to trade in their Deutsche marks, French francs, pesetas and liras.

The euro is now used by 340 million people in 19 nations, from Ireland to Germany to Slovakia. Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania are next in line to join the eurozone — though people are divided over the benefits of abandoning their national currencies.

European Council President Charles Michel argued it was necessary to leverage the euro to back up the EU’s goals of fighting climate change and leading on digital innovation. He added that it was “vital” work on a banking union and a capital markets
union be completed.

The idea of creating the euro first emerged in the 1970s as a way to deepen European integration, make trade simpler between member nations and give the continent a currency to compete with the mighty US dollar.

Officials credit the euro with helping Europe avoid economic catastrophe during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Clearly, Europe and the euro have become inseparable,” Lagarde wrote in a blog post. “For young Europeans… it must be almost impossible to imagine Europe without it.”

In the euro’s initial days, consumers were concerned it caused prices to rise as countries converted to the new currency. Though some products — such as coffee at cafes — slightly increased as businesses rounded up their conversions, official statistics have shown that the euro has brought more stable inflation.

Dearer goods have not increased in price, and even dropped in some cases. Nevertheless, the belief that the euro has made everything more expensive persists.

New look

The red, blue and orange banknotes were designed to look the same everywhere, with illustrations of generic Gothic, Romanesque and Renaissance architecture to ensure no country was represented over the others.

In December, the ECB said the bills were ready for a makeover, announcing a design and consultation process with help from the public. A decision is expected in 2024.

“After 20 years, it’s time to review the look of our banknotes to make them more relatable to Europeans of all ages and backgrounds,” Lagarde said.

Euro banknotes are “here to stay”, she said, although the ECB is also considering creating a digital euro in step with other central banks around the globe.

While the dollar still reigns supreme across the globe, the euro is now the world’s second most-used currency, accounting for 20 percent of global foreign exchange reserves compared to 60 percent for the US greenback.

Von der Leyen, in a video statement, said: “We are the biggest player in the world trade and nearly half of this trade takes place in euros.”

‘Valuable lessons’

The eurozone faced an existential threat a decade ago when it was rocked by a debt crisis that began in Greece and spread to other countries. Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus were saved through bailouts in return for austerity measures, and the euro stepped back from the brink.

Members of the Eurogroup of finance ministers said in a joint article they learned “valuable lessons” from that experience that enabled their euro-using nations to swiftly respond to fall-out from the coronavirus pandemic.

As the Covid crisis savaged economies, EU countries rolled out huge stimulus programmes while the ECB deployed a huge bond-buying scheme to keep borrowing costs low.

Yanis Varoufakis, now leader of the DiEM 25 party who resigned as Greek finance minister during the debt crisis, remains a sharp critic of the euro. Varoufakis told the Democracy in Europe Movement 25 website that the euro may seem to make sense in calm periods because borrowing costs are lower and there are no exchange rates.

But retaining a nation’s currency is like “automobile assurance,” he said, as people do not know its value until there is a road accident. In fact, he charged, the euro increases the risk of having an accident.