WATERLOO, Belgium — The Belgian town synonymous with Napoleon’s infamous defeat might not be the best place to make a last stand, symbolically speaking. But sitting in the living room of the house in Waterloo that serves as his headquarters-in-exile, Carles Puigdemont, the fugitive ex-president of Catalonia, is as defiant as ever.
“Independence is the only solution,” Puigdemont, who is fighting extradition to Spain on charges of sedition, said in an interview on Friday.
The European Parliament on Monday is expected to vote to strip the parliamentary immunity of Puigdemont and two other ex-members of his regional government, Toni Comín and Clara Ponsatí, who were elected to the EU legislature in 2019 and also face prosecution for organizing a 2017 independence referendum.
On paper, the expected outcome of the vote could be interpreted as a win for Madrid. But the fact the vote was held at all highlights the extent to which Puigdemont and his allies have managed to draw the EU and institutions into the fight over Catalonia’s future — a debate Brussels tries hard to portray as a domestic matter in which it should have no role or opinion.
And yet, the legal travails of the Catalan MEPs led to EU court rulings regarding election rules after Madrid tried unsuccessfully to block them from taking their seats the Parliament.
Their cases, and that of a fourth former Catalan official, have also ensnared Spain and Belgium in a giant legal battle over the validity of EU arrest warrants, with wider implications for judicial cooperation among EU countries.
The situation is also forcing Brussels to confront thorny questions about sovereignty, territorial integrity, self-determination and regional autonomy — along with allegations of politically motivated prosecutions — that the EU would much prefer to discuss in Georgia or Ukraine than in the heart of Western Europe.
Monday’s vote comes three weeks after a strong showing for pro-independence parties in Catalonia’s regional elections. Acting President Pere Aragonès, the leader of Catalonia’s Republican Left (ERC), has ruled out working with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist party, but also faces tough negotiations with Puidgemont’s JxCat party.
A nearly meaningless vote
In the interview at his house in Waterloo, Puigdemont said he was confident that a vote to lift parliamentary immunity for him and his two colleagues will not lead to extradition to Spain.
Two Belgian courts have already blocked the extradition of former Catalan Culture Minister Lluis Puig, who is wanted on similar charges related to the 2017 referendum, and Belgian prosecutors have said they will not appeal, essentially making it a final decision.
The ruling was based on two controversial findings. First, that Spain’s Supreme Court did not have proper jurisdiction to issue the arrest warrant and demand extradition because the Catalans should have been tried in regional court closer to where their alleged crimes occurred. And second, that extraditing Puig would risk violating fundamental rights because Spain’s political climate meant he would not enjoy a presumption of innocence or receive a fair trial.
If the Parliament votes to lift immunity on Monday, the move would simply mean a resumption of the Belgian legal proceedings that were suspended when Puigdemont, Comín and Ponsatí became MEPs, followed by the inevitable identical ruling to deny extradition as in Puig’s case.
But the denial of extradition, and the prospect of living the rest of his life exiled in Waterloo, would hardly count as a victory for Puigdemont, as the larger fight over Catalonia is far from finished.
In the interview, Puigdemont said he planned to make the case to MEPs that a vote against lifting immunity would defend the independence and integrity of the Parliament, protect “dissidents” — a label he readily claims for himself — and safeguard the democratic representation of more than 1 million Catalan voters who elected him, Comín and Ponsatí to serve in Brussels.
“For us, it is not a personal case,” Puigdemont said. “We are not protecting our particular rights. We are protecting also our voters, more than a million voters, more than a million European citizens who voted to be represented by us … minorities, not only national minorities, political minorities, dissidents.”
“If dissidents are threatened,” he continued, “Europe has a problem.”
But Puigdemont readily acknowledged that he expected to lose Monday’s vote, in part because the alleged crimes connected to the 2017 referendum occurred well before he, Comín and Ponsatí were elected to the European Parliament — a basic, routine reason for lifting the immunity that is intended to shield MEPs from political retribution for carrying out their official duties while in office.
“We are very realistic,” Puigdemont said. “We know the figures. We know the decision of the main groups.”
What Puigdemont really wants to discuss is not the whip count in Parliament, but the larger issue that has brought him to Brussels and to this brick house in Waterloo, with its giant Catalonian flag staked in the side yard, just a short drive from Napoleon’s last battlefield.
“Obviously after three years and three months of repression, my opinion is more solid,” he said.
The Spanish state has not come up with “an attractive alternative to independence” or a “political process for Catalonia,” according to Puigdemont. “The current status quo is not working and they know that. We know that. But what is an alternative to independence? Nothing. So if there is no alternative, the only path we can follow in order to survive as a nation is having our own state.”
The Spanish government, of course, regards such views as seditious and maintains that the effort to hold a referendum in 2017 was a violation of its constitution.
Some supporters of Catalan independence have likened Puidgemont’s case to that of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. They accuse the EU of hypocrisy for demanding Navalny’s release and imposing sanctions, while not criticizing Spain’s prosecution and jailing of Catalan leaders including Oriol Junqueras, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison for his role in the 2017 referendum and is still spending nights and weekends in jail under a partial release program.
Critics of the Catalan separatists might argue that Navalny has been fighting for a chance to campaign for elected office in Russia, not to break the country apart. Puigdemont pointed to another difference: Navalny was sent to jail for part of a three-and-a-half-year sentence, while Puigdemont faces up to 13 years behind bars if he returns to Spain.
“There is a double standard in the European Union,” Puigdemont said. “If we are concerned about human rights, as I hope Europe is, we must be clear it doesn’t matter if that is in Russia, or that is in Venezuela or in Spain. Because if not, the moral authority of the European Union giving lessons to the others is falling.”
In a dig at Spain’s former King Juan Carlos, who abdicated and is living in exile in the United Arab Emirates following a corruption scandal, Puigdemont said he and his colleagues had come to Brussels “not to escape the action of justice” but to take a stand.
“We decided to go in the heart of the European Union, to show we are here,” he said. “We will be at the disposal of the European authorities, the European courts.”
While he insisted people in Catalonia should have a right to self-determination, Puigdemont expressed less interest in giving people in the rest of Spain a say over the region’s future. He did, however, voice some hope that perhaps Europe would offer a solution to the philosophical questions about how countries should be organized.
“Borders exist, yes, but borders are not from God, they are not divine,” Puigdemont said. “You can agree to change borders. Borders are something artificial. All nations are artificial. Catalonia, Spain is a decision by a generation of people who decide to live together in this way. Ok, that probably works for our ancestors but what about the next generation in our current world?”
He suggested that if the EU could potentially accommodate North Macedonia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina as new member countries (a premise that is not exactly guaranteed in Brussels), it should also be able to accept Catalonia, the Basque Country and Scotland.
Puigdemont also said that if Madrid permitted the use of Catalan as an official language in Spain and in the EU, and protected other national aspirations, the particular passport in his pocket might not matter so much.
“Your feeling must be protected by the system,” he said. “If Spain protects my language, my decision to build a society based on fundamental rights, democracy, independence of justice, etc, I will have not one problem to have my Spanish passport. So if, finally, it’s Europe who brings us the protection to build a society as we want to build it, we will be very happy to have only European citizenship.”