The Italian authorities’ willingness to act on the arrest warrant issued by the supreme court in 2019 is a boost for the Spanish judiciary, especially given previous setbacks it has suffered during its pursuit of the former Catalan leader.
In 2018 Puigdemont was arrested in Germany, under a previous international warrant, but a court in that country eventually refused to extradite him on the rebellion charges he faced at the time. In 2020 Belgium dropped extradition proceedings against him after ruling that he had immunity as an MEP.
After four years it could be that Spain’s supreme court has finally got its man. However, even if proceedings continue this time, which is by no means certain, it is likely to be a lengthy process.
Spanish unionists have celebrated Puigdemont’s detention. Throughout his self-exile in Belgium he has been a much bolder, and more radical, figure than the one who led Catalonia between 2016 and 2017, denouncing Spain as an oppressive, undemocratic police state in forums and conferences across Europe. This week, in a typical broadside, he described the country as “a banana monarchy”.
In June, Spain’s Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez pardoned nine independence leaders who had been jailed for their role in the 2017 secession attempt. Sánchez presented the move as part of a strategy to calm tensions in the northeastern region. It was also aimed at undermining Puigdemont’s anti-Spanish rhetoric and minimising his influence on the Catalan debate.
Earlier this month the Catalan and Spanish governments resumed, after a year-and-a-half hiatus, talks aimed at seeking a long-term solution to the “Catalan problem”.
Although the Catalan president, Pere Aragonès, has gone into the negotiations demanding a binding independence referendum, he takes a more gradualist approach to the issue than the hardline Puigdemont, who has already been sniping at the talks from the sidelines.
Just days after Sánchez and Aragonès sat down together, his detention has broken the relatively calm mood, stoking the fires of separatist anger and placing him, once again, centre stage. Aragonès’s vocal support of Puigdemont, with whom he has had a difficult relationship, was a throwback to when the independence movement was less divided.
For Sánchez this also creates concerns beyond Catalonia. His leftist coalition relies on several smaller parties for parliamentary support, including Aragonès’s Catalan Republican Left (ERC). While a solution to the territorial conflict remains a long-term aim for the Spanish prime minister, a more pressing issue for him is getting next year’s budget through congress and keeping this legislature alive.
The Italian police’s actions in Sardinia may have made that just a little harder.