Spain briefly arrests Catalan MEP on return from exile

Catalan politician Clara Ponsati, a leading figure in her region's failed bid to gain independence, on Tuesday returned to Spain from five years in exile and was briefly arrested despite having immunity as an MEP.

Spain briefly arrests Catalan MEP on return from exile
Catalan regional policeman 'Mosso D'Esquadra" detains former Education minister of Catalonia and MEP's Clara Ponsati. Photo: Josep LAGO / AFP

The 66-year-old was released by a judge and summoned to appear at the Supreme Court on April 24th over “prosecution for a crime of disobedience,” the court said.

Ponsati does not risk prison, however, owing to legal reforms in Spain, where Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has adopted a strategy of dialogue with the moderate separatists and pardoning those involved in the independence bid.

Former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, Ponsati and fellow MEP Toni Comín led efforts by Catalonia’s separatist regional government to stage an independence referendum in October 2017 despite a ban by Madrid. The vote was marred by police violence.

Several weeks later, the Catalan administration issued a short-lived declaration of independence, triggering a political crisis that prompted Puigdemont and several others to flee.

“I have come to denounce the systematic violation of our rights,” Ponsati told a news conference in Barcelona, a few hours after entering Spain from France by car.

Puigdemont denounced her “illegal arrest” on Twitter.

Ponsati, who fled Spain along with Puigdemont, first lived in Belgium and then in Scotland where she taught economics at the University of St Andrews.

Scotland dropped a Spanish request for her extradition after her election to the European Parliament in 2019 and subsequent move to Belgium.

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Spain’s Feijóo, the opposition leader who missed his moment

Once the runaway favourite to be Spain's next prime minister, Alberto Núñez Feijóo has become the man who missed his moment after failing to find parliamentary support to be confirmed as premier.

Spain's Feijóo, the opposition leader who missed his moment

After months of riding high in the polls, the 62-year-old leader of the right-wing Popular Party long appeared confident he would replace Socialist Pedro Sánchez as prime minister.

Despite winning July’s election, it was a Pyrrhic victory with the PP falling well short of the 176 seats for a working majority, even with the support of the far-right Vox.

Since then Feijóo has seen his fortunes falter, only winning the support of 172 deputies and failing in this week’s two parliamentary votes, cutting short his dream of becoming “the first prime minister from rural Spain”.

“Today I won’t be able to give you a government but we have been able to give you hope that there’s a political force that will defend all Spaniards, initially in opposition but sooner or later from government,” he said on Friday.

Acknowledging his imminent defeat earlier this week, Feijóo lashed out at Sánchez over his plans to retain the premiership through a deal with a hardline Catalan separatist party.

“No end, not even becoming prime minister, justifies the means,” he thundered, referring to plans to offer an amnesty to those facing legal action over the failed 2017 Catalan separatist bid.

Boxed in by Vox

A progressive moderate from the rural northwestern region of Galicia, Feijóo had hoped his moderate stance and dull-but-dependable brand would be enough to end Sánchez’s reign.

READ ALSO: Feijóo is out of Spain’s presidential race: What will Sánchez do now?

Elected four times as Galicia’s leader with an absolute majority, Feijóo had prided himself on being able to contain the resurgence of the far right, with Vox never winning a single seat in the regional parliament.

But despite his moderate image and his desire to turn the PP into a centre-right party, Feijóo quickly realised he couldn’t become premier without Vox.

That alliance cost him support at the ballot box and left him with precious few parliamentary allies.

He also made mistakes in the final week of the campaign, stumbling over pensions in a TV interview and boycotting a televised debate between candidates, leaving the field open to his opponents.

Even so, observers said it was too early to write him off, saying it was likely he would remain at the helm of the party.

“Although it seemed like that on election night — that Feijóo had missed his chance and was going to be ousted from the leadership… I don’t think the PP is going to do that because he still has a chance,” said Oriol Bartomeus, a political scientist at Barcelona’s Autonomous University.

And that second chance could come very soon if Sánchez also fails to pass a vote to be inaugurated as prime minister in the coming weeks, meaning Spain will be forced to hold repeat elections, most likely in January.

Village boy

Born on September 10, 1961, in the village of Os Peares, Feijóo grew up in a working-class family to a father who worked in construction and a mother who ran a grocery shop.

He read law in Santiago de Compostela, hoping to become a judge but became a civil servant in 1985 when his father was suddenly left jobless.

He got his foot on the political ladder in 1991 joining Galicia’s agriculture ministry with a politician who went on to become health minister and took Feijóo with him to Madrid in 1996.

There he ran the Insalud national health service, then headed the Correos postal service before returning to Galicia where in 2006, he became the PP’s regional leader.

Ahead of July’s election, questions resurfaced about his ties with notorious tobacco smuggler and money launderer Marcial Dorado, who was later convicted for drug trafficking.

In 2013, El Pais published photos of the pair of them in the mid-90s on Dorado’s boat and on holiday together.

Feijóo insisted he “knew nothing” about Dorado’s activities but fellow Galician Yolanda Diaz of the radical-left Sumar wondered how he could claim ignorance “when all of Spain knew who he was”.

Despite being fiercely guarded about his private life, Feijóo told El Mundo’s women’s magazine that becoming a father in his mid-50s with his partner Eva Cardenas was the “best gift life has given me”.

And he also admitted that he rings his mum if he’s had “a bad day” — which may well be the case on Friday.