In Conversation With: Dr Clara Ponsatí
January 2015: Dr Ponsatí is appointed Director of the School of Economics and Finance at the University of St Andrews.
10 January 2016: Pro-Catalan-independence politician, Carles Puigdemont, becomes the 130th President of Catalonia. He is the first to refuse to take the oath of loyalty to the Spanish constitution and monarch.
14 July 2017:Dr Ponsatí is appointed Councillor of Education of the Generalitat of Catalonia by President Puigdemont. She takes a sabbatical from the University of St Andrews to pursue this role.
6 September 2017: Catalonia’s parliament passes legislation authorising a binding independence referendum to be held on 1 October 2017.
7 September 2017: The Constitutional Court of Spain suspends the legislation, blocking the referendum.
1 October 2017: The referendum is held regardless. It is boycotted by opponents of secession, leading to a turn-out of 43%. 92% of voters favour independence. 900 people are injured by the Spanish National Police as they try to prevent voting. Dr Ponsatí is physically assaulted by National Police after verbally trying to prevent them from entering a voting point.
27-28 October 2017: The Catalan Parliament declares Catalonia’s independence. In response, the Senate of Spain invokes article 155 of the Constitution. In doing so, President Puigdemont and his government are dismissed as Madrid imposes direct rule on Catalonia. Spanish Prime Minister, Mariona Rajoy, calls for a snap Catalan election to be held on 21 of December.
30-31 October 2017: Former President Puigdemont, alongside four allies from his government, including Dr Ponsatí, go into exile in Belgium as the Spanish Attorney General, Jose Manuel Maza, files charges of “rebellion”, “sedition”, and misuse of public funds against members of the deposed Executive Council. Many of those who do not seek exile are arrested and charged.
3 November 2017: A Spanish judge issues European Arrest Warrants (EWAs) against the exiled group after they failed to attend a High Court hearing in Madrid regarding the aforementioned charges. Two days later, the five exiled politicians turn themselves in to the Belgian police. Pending an extradition decision from the Belgian courts, they are released under orders not to leave the country.
5 December 2017: The Supreme Court of Spain withdraws the EWAs, stating that the warrant is not valid for alleged crimes committed by a wider group of people, eg. the Catalan Government. However, national arrest warrants remain valid. The group risks arrest if they are to return to Spain.
22 December 2017: The snap election backfires as pro-independence parties win a slim majority in Catalonia’s parliamentary elections. However, Madrid still remains firmly in control of Catalonia due to the emergency powers invoked in October.
10 March 2018: Dr Ponsatí returns to Scotland for “practical and personal reasons” and to her role as a professor at the University of St Andrews. She pledges to continue fighting for Catalonia’s independence while in the UK.
24 March 2018: Spain’s Supreme Court re-issues the EAWs, alongside International Arrest Warrants, against the exiled separatist leaders. Dr Ponsatí’s solicitor, Aamer Anwar, states that she faces up to 25 years in jail if she is extradited and found guilty on the charges laid out in the 18-page warrant.
25-26 March 2018: The University of St Andrews releases a statement, signed by Principal Mapstone. It reads: “We are committed to protect and support [Ponsatí]...we believe there are legitimate arguments that Clara is being targeted for standing up for her political beliefs.” First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, similarly condemns the EAW, however, emphasises that the Scottish Government is legally obliged to follow due process.
28 March 2018: Dr Ponsatí voluntarily attends a police station in Edinburgh where she is held for a preliminary court appearance. She is granted bail. Outside, Catalan and Scottish independence supporters gather.
June 2018: Catalonia’s Government, led by ally of Puigdemont, Quim Torra, is officially sworn in, marking the end of direct rule by Madrid.
19 July 2018: Spain, once again, withdraws its EAW against Dr Ponsatí after they are unsatisfied with the German extradition of Puigdemont.
5 November 2019: Spain issues a new EAW against Dr Ponsatí.
14 November 2019: Dr Ponsatí, once again, hands herself into police. After a preliminary hearing at Edinburgh Sheriff Court, she is released on bail.
January 2020: Brexit causes Spain to be awarded five more seats in the European Parliament. Dr Ponsatí is on the list to be one of those five MEPs.
1 February 2020: Dr Ponsatí assumes office as an MEP, joining Puigdemont and Catalonia’s former Health Minister, Toni Comin who were elected in the 2019 European Parliamentary elections. As MEPs, the three gain parliamentary immunity from legal proceedings regarding Catalonia’s referendum.
9 March 2020: The European Parliament votes to remove the parliamentary immunity of the three MEPs.
26 August 2021: With Dr Ponsatí now residing in Belgium as an MEP, the presiding judge at Edinburgh Sheriff Court dismisses extradition proceedings, stating: “You cannot extradite someone who is not here”.
On 1 October 2017, scenes of Catalonia’s independence referendum - prohibited by the Spanish Government in Madrid - reverberated around Europe and the world as voters were met with a National Police crackdown. In an effort to prevent Catalonians from casting their vote, the National Police fired rubber bullets into crowds, used batons on those trying to take part in the referendum, sealed off polling stations, and were even seen dragging Catalonians from voting booths by their hair. On account of both the crackdown and a boycott of the referendum by opposers of secession, voter turnout resided at 43%. However, of those who voted, 92% favoured independence.
In response, the Spanish Government disposed of the Catalan Government and imposed direct rule over Catalonia. Subsequently, the Spanish Attorney General filed charges of “rebellion”, “sedition”, and misuse of public funds against the organisers of the referendum - including Catalonia’s President Carles Puigdemont and the executive council of his Government. Puigdemont and four members of his disposed Government - including the Minister for Education, Dr Clara Ponsatí - exiled themselves to Belgium.
Scotland found itself with close links to the events unfolding on its evening News. Like Catalonia, Scotland is regarded as a semi-autonomous nation within a larger sovereign state. And, only three years prior, Scotland had held its own independence referendum. Additionally, both Scotland and Catalonia possess parliaments with powers for independent legislation, their own flags, police forces and public health services - as well as long and complicated historical relationships to the states in which they reside.
Moreover, one of those indicted by the Spanish Attorney General was Dr Clara Ponsatí - the former Head of the School of Economics and Finance at the University of St Andrews. In 2018, Dr Ponsatí would return to this role, while European Arrest Warrants (EAWs) calling for her extradition to Spain were retracted and re-issued. Her lawyer, Aamer Anwar, called the charges in her 2018 warrant “a grotesque distortion of the truth by the Spanish state”. Evidently, many agreed with Anwar’s statement as Dr Ponsatí found a strong supporter base both in Scotland and internationally.
Today, Dr Ponsatí is an Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and resides on the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy and the Subcommittee on Tax Matters. Over the past four years, her case has made headlines across the globe - including here in St Andrews as we at The Saint closely followed her story. We met over Zoom to discuss her fascinating journey, including her most recent headline: “Scotland drops extradition proceedings against Catalan politician”.
I wanted to find out where this journey had begun for Dr Ponsatí. Born and raised in Catalonia, I asked her if it was during her formative years that she first became aware of Catalonia’s independence movement.
“I have been aware that I was a Catalan for as long as I’ve had consciousness. I grew up under Francoism. At that time, the independence movement was underground, joined together with anti-Francoist activism. While I had family that felt strongly Catalan, there was no explicit discussion of independence at school or at home.
“So, as a young person, I was more involved in anti-Francoism. I became an active, committed supporter of independence around 2005 when I, alongside many other Catalans, realised that the 1978 Spanish Constitution was not functioning as an effective devolution arrangement: our rights as a nation were not being respected and our parliament’s attempt at reform within the legal bounds of the Spanish Constitution did not find an open ear in the Spanish state.
“In 2010, the independence movement really grew after a Spanish Constitutional tribunal ruled that proposed reforms of Catalan’s [Autonomy] Charter were unconstitutional. The Catalan people received a message from this tribunal: ‘you’re not a nation’. The Court was basically saying that it’s unconstitutional to feel or think that Catalonia is so or to want self-determination - which is in contradiction with Spain’s duty to abide by the United Nations’ Charter.”
I asked why the Catalan Government felt that the October 2017 referendum should be held, despite the Spanish Government declaring it illegal to do so.
“There were several attempts to get the Spanish Congress’ acceptance that Catalonians have the right to vote in an independence referendum. They were always met with refusal, despite Catalonia’s openness to negotiating the terms of the referendum.
“In 2015, there was a coalition of parties elected to Catalonia’s parliament which had run on the single platform of holding an independence referendum. They had the parliamentary majority, the support of the electorate, so there was a majority mandate for a referendum. This is what led Catalonia to the October 2017.”
I wondered about Dr Ponsatí’s experience of 1 October 2017 - the day of the referendum.
“When I was invited to join the Catalan Government in July 2017, I knew it was a bold move to take. But, my commitment to their cause led me to take that personal risk.”
“During summer 2017, part of my job as the Education Minister was to make sure that schools were available for use as referendum polling stations. On 1 October, the Spanish Government sent thousands of police officers to Catalonia. Before they had arrived, they had been given very disturbing messages of support from those around them: ‘Go get them! Go Get them!’. So, we knew that there was a threat of violence.
“But, we opened the schools and started the vote. Soon after, the police forces were deployed to attack people who were queueing outside the polling stations. They hit people and stole some of the ballot boxes, but they could not stop the referendum from continuing on.”
I followed up by asking Dr Ponsatí if she had ever envisioned that 1 October 2017 would have ended in police violence and her own exile.
“Yes, I always thought that it was a possibility. Unfortunately, I don’t think it was in the minds of enough of the political leadership at the time. They were a bit naive: hoping, that since Spain is a democracy and part of the European Union, such an outcome would never arise. Maybe because I am older and lived under Franco, or maybe because I was aware of how Spain reacted to the independence movements of its colonies, I knew that Spain was not going to act as a civilised power.”
She goes on to explain: “The judicial institution in Spain never totally defeated Francoism. The Spanish High Courts, including the Constitutional Court, have a very direct Francoist route. Moreover, whenever the popular party has been in government, they have taken very careful steps to ensure that these courts are composed of individuals that prioritize Spanish unity.”
During her exile, Dr Ponsatí returned to her role as a professor of Economics at St Andrews. I asked about how she had found her experiences of St Andrews.
“I have very fond memories of the time I spent in St Andrews. As the Head of the School of Economics, I enjoyed listening to students and changing the curriculum to improve their experience.”
“In 2018, I returned as a professor. I was very happy interacting with students. The students are one of the most wonderful things that St Andrews has. They are so hard-working and open-minded.
“It’s such a beautiful town as well. I only have misgivings about the weather,” she laughs.
However, Dr Ponsatí’s time at St Andrews in 2018 was often disrupted by court hearings as the second of three EAWs was issued against her by the Spanish Government. And, while the former Rector of St Andrews and Labour MEP, Catherine Stihler, wrote to Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commision, urging him to condemn Spain’s use of EAWs in a political dispute; outside Dr Ponsati’s court hearings, crowds of supporters would gather, often waving the Scottish and Catalan flags. I asked Dr Ponsatí if she had been expecting to find such support for her case.
“My first reaction was ‘wow, these people care about me?’ It came as a hugely positive shock. In St Andrews, the Principal and my colleagues were so supportive. I wasn’t expecting that the general population of Scotland was going to be so warm as well. It meant a lot to me: knowing that I was not alone.”
“We [Catalan independence supporters] realise that whenever we get a chance to explain our case, people from all over the world with democratic feelings understand it.”
In Scotland, many - although, of course, not all - of Dr Ponsatí’s supporters were also supporters of Scottish independence.
“Large fractions of both the Scottish and Catalan populations feel that small self-governing nation-states work better: they have higher prospects for prosperity, for tackling climate change, and for welcoming immigration. We are two different peoples who realise that important decisions affecting our well-being are being taken in London and Madrid and who want to recover that capacity.”
“Of course, there are similarities between the causes - and we sympathise with one another - but there are also important differences. I trust that the British judicial system would never do what the politicised Spanish judiciary is doing to myself and my colleagues.”
Dr Ponsatí also spoke positively of her experience with the Scottish judicial system, in which she faced intermittent proceedings for over three years before her most recent extradition case was officially dropped by the Edinburgh Sheriff Court in August of this year.
“I think that the Scottish judicial system has behaved extremely professionally, fair, and neutrally. In 2018, they were ready for my trial. But, a Spanish judge withdrew my EAW for political reasons: Spain was unsatisfied with the results of the [German] extradition hearing of [Catalan’s Former President] Carles Puigdemont. Then, 14 months later, the same Spanish judge asked the Scottish courts to start proceedings against me once again. This feels like an abuse of the Scottish legal system: taking up resources and time.”
We moved on to discuss Dr Ponsatí’s work today as an MEP, alongside Puigdemont and Catalonia’s former Health Minister, Toni Comin, who, today, also sit in the European Parliament. I asked her how she manages to coalesce her work for Catalan independence with the traditional duties of an MEP.
“As an MEP, I was elected on the platform of President Puigdemont. Therefore, we have a mandate to use the European Parliament as a loudspeaker for our cause. So, a large part of my job is to speak up for the perspective of the Catalans and denounce the abuses of human rights that are taking place in Spain: through the judiciary and the police who relentlessly pursue young people taking part in demonstrations.
“At the same time, I sit in committees and participate through offering my knowledge as an Economics professor, review reports, and make amendments.”
I ended our conversation by asking Dr Ponsatí what she believes the future holds for both herself and Catalonia’s independence movement.
She laughs: “One never knows.
“It’s been a very tough four years following the referendum. We’ve suffered a lot: some of my colleagues have been imprisoned for a long time; some will be facing trial soon. The Government, judiciary, Crown, and police are united in their feeling that the only way to manage us is through fear. While pressure from European institutions has resulted in pardons for some who were sentenced to 10 or 13 years, these pardons were only partial [meaning that the pardoned could not return to politics] and they are still prosecuting all of us who are still in exile.
“In Barcelona, on 11 September - Catalonia’s national day-, there was a big demonstration. There were hundreds of thousands of people in attendance, despite their lack of enthusiasm for crowded gatherings due to the pandemic. This shows that people have not given up. This is what brings me hope.”
Photo: Arpita Shah