Sánchez’s bet is the “best opportunity” of the decade to defuse the Catalan dispute

No sooner had Pedro Sánchez arrived at Barcelona’s Liceu opera house to announce the pardon of nine Catalan separatists than the obstacles to his attempt to defuse Spain’s most controversial political conflict became evident.

The supporters of the independence of Catalonia have barricaded the socialist prime minister. Leaders of the region’s separatist administration refused to attend his speech, calling for a broader amnesty and an independence referendum. Meanwhile, in Madrid, the capital of the central government, right-wing politicians called him a “traitor” who had yielded to the “coup plotters”.

And yet Sánchez’s political gamble – which has received backing from leading figures in business and the Catholic Church – could be a rare chance to move forward on Spain’s biggest unresolved problem, some analysts suggest.

“This is the best opportunity on the Catalan conflict for at least a decade,” said Oriol Bartomeus, political scientist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

National and regional governments are now ruled by parties promising to seek dialogue rather than confrontation, he noted, adding that Sánchez’s decision had opened “a path to dialogue, but the forces within it. opposites are very strong ”.

Sánchez’s government argues pardons can suck the poison from the Catalan conflict, which rocked Spanish politics for more than a decade and left the region itself in stasis, with a pro-independence administration and an almost equally divided population. between separatists and trade unionists.

This state of affairs complicated the formation of any stable government in Madrid – in part due to the swinging votes of separatist MPs – and led to an illegal secessionist referendum in 2017. This in turn triggered a failed unilateral declaration of independence. , as well as prison sentences for the nine politicians and activists that Sánchez’s government partially pardoned on Tuesday.

Catalan regional president Pere Aragonès said the pardons were “inadequate and incomplete” © Quique Garcia / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

Sánchez argued that his decision was necessary to move the dispute from the legal realm to the political realm, noting that “millions of Catalans feel an emotional connection with the jailed leaders”.

Pardoned prisoners include Oriol Junqueras, who heads the party that runs the regional administration, the Catalan Republican Left or ERC – which also frequently helps the prime minister win votes in the national parliament. But if Sánchez’s bet does not bear fruit, he and his minority government will be weakened.

Success is anything but guaranteed, according to Astrid Barrio, an academic at the University of Valencia, who highlights three fronts on which Sánchez’s efforts could be crushed: the political, the judicial and the bureaucratic.

Opponents of pardons outnumber supporters – and the center-right People’s Party is challenging them in court, according to a poll.

In addition, many activists, separatists and trade unionists, reject the dialogue Sánchez hopes to engage: some two years of talks that could end with an agreement on greater autonomy.

The most important response could come from the ERC, which the Socialists of Sánchez – another center-left party – see as a promising interlocutor.

But the reaction this week from Pere Aragonès, the ERC politician who heads the Catalan government, was less than exuberant: he called the pardons “inadequate and incomplete”. He added: “The crackdown on Catalan citizens goes much further” – a reference to Spanish legal and administrative actions.

Spain is still asking for the extradition of exiled separatist leaders involved in the 2017 referendum, including Carles Puigdemont, the head of the regional administration at the time who now lives in Belgium. Lawsuits continue against dozens of lower level figures involved in the events of 2017.

Administratively, Spain’s Court of Auditors is set to demand next week that around 40 former Catalan officials repay millions of euros in regional government funds they say were wrongly used to promote independence – and to seize assets if they do not comply.

Among those facing such a prospect is Andreu Mas-Colell, a former Harvard economics professor who received support from 33 Nobel Prize winners.

The dispute made waves abroad: Monday, the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe put Spain on hold with Turkey, calling for an end to the prosecution and expressing concern over the court’s actions.

Former Catalan separatist leaders, including Oriol Junqueras (front row, right) during their trial in 2019 © Emilio Naranjo / POOL / AFP / Getty

The Spanish government accused the assembly of turning a blind eye to the country’s fundamental separation of powers. But he is already proceeding on one of the main recommendations of the council: to revise the law on sedition, an offense for which the nine detainees were found guilty.

Typically, Sanchez’s government argued that there was no alternative to negotiations for a country and region that grew weary of conflict.

Business figures make a similar argument after years in which instability in Catalonia has put Madrid ahead of Madrid as the main contributor to Spain’s gross domestic product, as thousands of businesses have moved. their head office outside the region.

“The conflict may be resolved in 10 years, but the dispute is no longer so heated and greater political stability has considerable economic value,” said Javier Faus, a Spanish private investor and director of Cercle d’Economia. , a business-oriented Catalan think tank.

“You can already see it,” he added. “After three and a half years, the money markets, the institutions, have ruled out the possibility of independence happening; they understand that Catalonia is not going to leave Spain.


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