Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez pardoned the nine Catalan separatists jailed for holding an unauthorized independence referendum in 2017.
Pardons are far from an amnesty. Former regional vice president Oriol Junqueras and other politicians who have been sentenced to between nine and thirteen years in prison for “sedition” against the Spanish state and embezzlement of public funds are still prohibited from holding public office.
“Sedition” remains a crime. (Although Sánchez’s government is considering revising the obscure statute.) A vote on Catalan independence would still be illegal. That’s why I argued a month ago that forgiveness was the least Sánchez could do.
Here’s what he should do next.
When Sánchez was re-elected in 2019, he offered the Catalans a good deal: the possibility of a pardon (now granted) and the resumption of official dialogue between the Catalan regional government in Barcelona and the central government in Madrid.
These talks were suspended by Sánchez’s conservative predecessor when Catalonia voted for independence in 2017. Trade unionists boycotted the referendum: the turnout was 43%. Spain nevertheless revoked Catalan autonomy and forced the region to hold early elections.
Sánchez was never going to sanction a referendum on independence. He cannot, not without changing the Constitution or revising the composition of the Constitutional Court, which ruled in 2017 that a referendum was illegal. Either attempt would be blocked by right-wing opposition parties in Congress. Sánchez heads a minority government.
This does not mean that the Catalans must give up on a referendum. Between 70 and 80 percent want one, according to polls. The Catalans have a right to self-determination, even if it is not recognized by Spain.
This means that they must prioritize other feasible demands.
- Five former members of the Catalan government are still living in voluntary exile. Among them is Carles Puigdemont, the former regional president and member of the European Parliament, who resides in Belgium. Spain should withdraw their arrest warrants and allow them to return home.
- Sánchez is expected to complete the transfer of powers that Catalonia promised in 2006, but that previous conservative governments have postponed. In particular in labor law, maritime rescue and scholarships.
- Responsibility for health care, infrastructure, law enforcement and social security is “shared” between regional and national governments. Conservatives have used this ambiguity to delay infrastructure investments in Catalonia and force the region to cut social security benefits, even when they are fully paid by Catalans.
- The Catalans have long demanded similar tax rights to the Basques, who collect their own taxes and send some of the money to Madrid. Catalonia collects some taxes itself, but most of it is collected by the Spanish government, which returns some to Catalonia.
- Put those changes – rationalization of “shared” powers, additional fiscal autonomy – to Catalan voters in a referendum, similar to that of 2006, which was the last time Catalan autonomy was revised. (Sánchez said that in 2018, such a referendum might be possible.)
Will this satisfy all the separatists? No. Some will accept nothing less than independence. But polls suggest hard-line supporters make up less than a third of the electorate. The broad milieu of Catalan voters – some of whom dream of a Catalan republic, some of whom would prefer to remain Spanish – could support more autonomy.
Will this scandalize the Spanish nationalists? Of course. But they have been in a permanent phase of indignation since 2017 and will resist all concessions. So Sánchez may as well make those concessions that might ease the tension.
I argued for years that Catalonia needed a third way between secession and status quo. The alternative is more polarization, which sucks air from other political debates.
Catalan politics are already revolving around the question of independence, forcing left and right separatists to form heavy coalitions and preventing more natural alliances on bread and butter issues. There is a left-wing majority in the Catalan parliament, but because the center-right is necessary for a separatist majority, policies like a basic income and rent control are not as ambitious as the left would have liked.
National politics are also eclipsed by Catalan independence. Sánchez has twice tried to form a coalition government with the liberal citizens, but their insistence on a hard line against Catalonia – revoking the region’s autonomy – forced the Social Democrat to a pact with the parties of far left, Basques and Catalans.
The extremes benefit from it. Catalan separatists widened their majority in the last regional elections. The far right, which wants to dismantle all regional autonomies and refocus power in Madrid, has returned to Congress for the first time since the end of the dictatorship. The conservative Popular Party has swung to the right and calls Sánchez a “traitor” for even negotiating with the Catalans.
Sánchez has a chance to reverse this dynamic by proving that reasonable compromises can be made at the center.