Pardons for Catalonia

News from Europe this morning is that Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez has, as expected, announced that his government has approved pardons for nine leaders of the separatist movement in Catalonia who were convicted and jailed in 2019 for their part in the unauthorised independence referendum of October 2017 and its aftermath.

Most sensible observers would see this as a no-brainer. It’s surely obvious that resolution of the Catalan question will require a commitment to good-faith negotiation from both sides, and the Catalans can hardly be expected to come to the table while their leaders are in jail. As I said following the 2017 referendum, “It’s fundamental to democracy that no-one should be put at risk of criminal charges for advocating peaceful constitutional change.”

Just last February, the supporters of independence won a majority of the vote in the Catalan regional election and again formed a pro-independence government. They will be more cautious about their tactics this time, but the issue is clearly not going away.

Pardons also make sense in terms of Sánchez’s immediate political interest. His coalition government lacks a majority in its own right and depends on the tolerance of at least some of the separatists. While he has not, of course, acknowledged that there is a quid pro quo involved, this is a natural move to shore up their support and ward off the threat of an early election – something Spain has had far too many of in recent years.

Even El País, which most of the time is virulently anti-Catalan, editorialised in favor of the pardons:

This newspaper believes that the best way to redirect the crisis is through political initiatives that will first reduce the tension, and then progressively restore spaces attuned to the Spanish democratic project within Catalan society. What doesn’t seem rational is to think that inertia will solve the problem. Pardons are probably a necessary condition, though not a sufficient one, to change this trend.

But the curse of European politics is intolerant nationalism, and the polls say that outside of Catalonia, Sánchez’s decision is deeply unpopular. The three opposition parties (centre, centre-right and far right) have denounced the idea in the most intemperate terms. Without offering any alternative vision of how Catalonia’s aspirations can be dealt with, they accuse Sánchez of betraying the idea of the Spanish nation – the very “nation” that many Catalans insist they are not (and never have been) part of.

This is the sort of thing that often makes people despair of democracy. But I think it’s important to recognise that the fault lies not with the ordinary voters but with the politicians who stoke the fires of nationalist sentiment. Left to themselves, I doubt that most Spaniards would exert themselves to do anything much about Catalonia – just as, for example, the people of the former Yugoslavia got on quite well together until unscrupulous politicians started telling them that they were the captives of ancient tribal hatreds.

The polls don’t look good at the moment, but as long as his support holds in parliament, Sánchez doesn’t need to face an election until the end of 2023. If in that time he can reach some sort of new settlement with the Catalans, the voters probably won’t care much about exactly how he got there. Yesterday’s pardons may be a necessary step, but they are just the first step on what looks like being a very long road.

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