The Catalan regional crisis – Spain’s latest attempt to prosecute Catalonia’s ex-president

The former president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, was recently arrested upon arrival in Sardinia, Italy, after having spent nearly four years in exile. During the trial held the following day, the Italian authorities decided to release him on the condition that he returns for a hearing later in October. With the question of Catalan independence still being a heated debate, many wonder, what impact will these events have on the ongoing Catalan regional crisis?

Succeeding the autonomous elections of Catalonia in 2015, Carles Puigdemont became the 130th president of the ‘Generalitat’ (Government of Catalonia), a position he held from January 2016, until October the following year. He was dismissed from his position after promoting an illegal referendum for independence and declaring Catalonia a sovereign state. 

These two events caused one of the largest political conflicts Spain had experienced in decades, and marked an important moment in Catalonia’s regional crisis. The violence imposed by the Spanish National Police to dissolve the referendum was harshly criticized in Catalonia as well as abroad. For many non-partisan Catalans, these events resulted in a  turning point, leading them to position themselves in favor of independence. The voting results were clear: out of a total of almost 2.3 million votes, 90.1% voted pro-independence, 7.9% against, and 2% voted blank.

People demanded the government to act in accordance with the referendum’s results and, as the protests started to take place more frequently, social pressure rapidly increased. Puigdemont decided to intervene, and a few weeks following the referendum, he declared the independent Catalan Republic. 

Polling stations being raided by Spanish police (Photo: David Ortega, Shutterstock)

Following this declaration of independence, the state administration in Madrid invoked article 155 of the Spanish constitution. The article states that the central government is authorized to take control of an autonomous government, such as that of Catalonia, and implement direct rule. That is, if “the autonomous community acts in a way that seriously undermines the general interests of Spain”. The decision remained in force for seven months. 

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court of Spain had issued an arrest warrant for Puigdemont, who consequently fled to Belgium in seek of political asylum to avoid being prosecuted by the Spanish judiciary. In 2019, he became a member of the European Parliament, which granted him immunity from prosecution. However, in March this year, the General Court of the European Union decided to withdraw his parliamentary immunity.

Protests in support of Catalan independence after the referendum (Photo: Zixia, Shutterstock)

On September 23rd, the former president flew to the Italian region of Sardinia, where he had planned to meet as an MEP with the president of the region and other pro-independence leaders. However, as soon as the plane had landed, Puigdemont was arrested by the Italian authorities.  

The following day of his arrest, the trial of Puigdemont took place. It resulted in the Italian authorities’ decision to release him, allowing the former president to once again dodge Spain’s prosecution attempts. The Italian court argued that, as a member of the European Parliament, Puigdemont had the right to leave the country to attend meetings in Brussels.

Pedro Sánchez, Prime Minister of Spain, commented on this decision during a press conference. While stating that the Spanish government respected all the judicial decisions, he added that it was clear that “Carles Puigdemont must be brought to justice and stand trial”.

On the 25th of September, Puigdemont returned to his residence in Belgium, but he is expected to return to Italy for an extradition hearing later this month. 

Puigdemont’s detention in Italy was immediately followed by pro-independence protests in the streets of Barcelona. Hours after the arrest was made known, thousands of people gathered in front of the Italian consul in Barcelona to object to his arrest. The demonstrations reached beyond Barcelona, with protests taking place in cities such as Toulouse, London, Brussels and Luxembourg.

Considering Puigdemont’s exile in Belgium and his multinational arrests, the Catalan conflict has become increasingly international. Consequently, one question which has arisen is whether the European Union will need to intervene in order to help dissolve the dispute.

Poster in a bar in Brussels of Former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont (Photo: Alexandros Michailidis, Shutterstock)

The  Catalan regional crisis is arguably more complicated than ever – Carles Puigdemont is still in exile, street protests in Barcelona break out on a regular basis and there is an ongoing “war of flags” in most of Catalonia’s cities and towns. 

The region is clearly divided when it comes to political beliefs: in the most recent autonomous elections, which took place last February, pro-independence parties achieved the majority of votes. They managed to obtain 51% of the seats, surpassing, for the first time in history, the threshold of 50% of votes in favor of an independent Catalan Republic. 

However, while the pro-independence parties celebrated their gains, the far-right, pro-unity VOX party also saw an increase in votes. Nevertheless, the party that won the largest number of votes was the center-left, pro-unity Catalan Socialist Party (PSC). 

The question now is what will happen next. While tensions are high, there seems to be a willingness from both sides to engage in dialogue. This summer, the government of Spain indeed decided to free nine pro-independence Catalan politicians who took part in the independence bid of 2017.

The decision did not come without some controversy, but according to Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, this was an important step in order to ease tensions and enhance the possibility of negotiations.

Yet, in view of the considerable disparities between the political parties involved in the conflict, engaging in dialogue might not be sufficient for reaching a solution. The latest attempt of prosecution has once again demonstrated the instability of the situation and showed that any occurrence may trigger another outbreak of protests. Therefore, the events following Puigdemont’s arrest will be of great importance, as they have the potential of determining the future course of the Catalan crisis. Will this lead to a new era of dialogue and reconciliation, or will the conflict remain unresolved, only to occasionally reappear in international headlines for a few days before once again disappearing from people’s minds? 

Ivette Nogués 

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