The Euro Zone

Too close to call?

This week, Spain's State Attorney recommended the release from prison of the prominent Catalan politician Oriol Junqueras. Junqueras leads the pro-independence ERC, and in October he was sentenced to 13 years behind bars for his role in organising an illegal referendum on Catalan independence in 2017. Coming just ahead of two investiture sessions next week, in which Pedro Sánchez will try to become Spain's next PM, the recommendation suggests there's a close connection between the executive and judicial branches of the government.

Sánchez already has the backing of leftist Unidas Podemos and the Basque national party PNV, but in order to lead the next government he needs the ERC to either vote for him or abstain next week. The Catalan group's support is dependent on Sánchez relaxing his anti-secession stance, so it seems somewhat coincidental that the State Attorney's recommendation departs from the usual government line on how 'independistas' should be dealt with. (Sánchez himself endorsed the sentences last October, which saw nine leading separatists receive nine to 13 years in prison for their roles in the 2017 referendum.)

Could the call for Junqueras' release be a gesture of goodwill from the head of Spain's Prosecution ministry, designed to appease the ERC and end the country's prolonged political deadlock? When seen in this way, the State Attorney's additional request - that Junqueras take up his seat as an MEP, but without the legal immunity usually given to such lawmakers - makes sense, although it's unlikely to be granted by the European Parliament. It's as if the Spanish judiciary aims to satisfy both secessionists and nationalists at the same time, by saying "we want Junqueras out of jail, but not off the hook completely".

The State Attorney's recommendation follows a ruling by the Court of Justice of the EU in December, to the effect that Junqueras gained immunity the moment he was elected as an MEP in May last year. According to this argument, which is now before the Supreme Court for consideration, the ERC leader should never have been put on trial for sedition and misuse of public funds (the offences for which he was found guilty in October), let alone sentenced to 13 years in prison.

Leaving aside the issue of whether politicians should have legal immunity, Junqueras' fate now rests in the hands of the Supreme Court - the very body that put him behind bars in October, in what could be described as a heavily politicised ruling. It's plausible to argue that in present-day Spain there is a very close relationship between law and politics when it comes to Catalan separatists - and not necessarily one that will benefit the ERC's imprisoned leader.