“We should look joyous, no?” asked Jordi Sànchez as he stood in the lobby of the Lledoners prison on June 23, about to walk out a free man. The Spanish government pardoned the Catalan activist and eight others who had been convicted for their role in the 2017 referendum on Catalan independence. The political leaders strode across the patio, stopping to pose for the global media gathered outside the prison gate. Smiling and cheering, they held up a banner that read, in English, “Freedom for Catalonia.” Trailing behind, Oriol Junqueras, the leader of the Catalan Left Republican party (ERC), looked somber. Still, he waved his right hand and then, almost out of habit, closed it into a raised fist.
Days later, on June 30, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, leader of the Socialist Party, defended his decision to issue the pardons before Congress. “The time of politics has arrived,” he said. “What we cannot do is offload our own political responsibilities onto the judiciary.” For columnists and pundits across Spain, the take-away message from the speech was very different: Sánchez’s red line against a future referendum. “There will be no referendum on self-determination,” Sánchez said, claiming that he planned to maintain an open dialogue with Catalan pro-independence leaders that would adhere to Spain’s 1978 Constitution, which regards the country as an “indissoluble unity.” Changing it requires a three-fifths majority. The July 1 headline in El País read: “Referendum, never.”
The reaction to Sánchez’s speech on the right was predictable. Hard-line Spanish nationalists from the conservative Partido Popular and the far-right Vox party painted the pardons as tantamount to treason. “You’ve put the fate of Spain in the hands of those who want to destroy it [and] you’ve betrayed your oath to defend the equality of all Spaniards,” the PP’s current leader, Pablo Casado, told Sánchez in parliament on June 30. Vox leader Santiago Abascal called the pardons “an act of political corruption” that amounted to “treason against the king.” Together with Inés Arrimadas, leader of the center-right Ciudadanos party, Abascal encouraged Casado to call for a vote of no confidence, the same political maneuver Sánchez had pulled on his predecessor, former prime minister Mariano Rajoy, in 2018, following the Partido Popular’s major—and still ongoing—corruption scandal. Such a move, however, would be bound to fail. Sánchez’s progressive coalition government, which includes the left-wing party Unidas Podemos, doesn’t hold a parliamentary majority, and relies on the support of regional pro-independence parties of different ideological shades to pass legislation. Given the Spanish right’s current advocacy of militant Spanish nationalism, those parties would almost certainly never support a vote of no confidence and risk losing their king-making power.
In 2017, the Catalan referendum took place despite a court prohibition and a massive display of police trying to prevent citizens from casting a ballot. Following the vote—in which 92 percent favored secession, with a turnout of 43 percent—the Catalan president issued a symbolic declaration of independence, which he then immediately suspended, to the disappointment of many voters. For the region’s political leadership, the threat of secession, it appeared, had never been more than a way to egg each other on, rally their electoral base, and force the central government’s hand to renegotiate Catalonia’s status within Spain. Still, the vote was widely seen as a humiliation of the Spanish central government, which reacted accordingly. Catalonia saw its autonomy temporarily revoked, while hundreds of politicians and activists were arrested or investigated. (In the month leading up to the vote, the pro-independence parties had violated parliamentary procedure to silence the minority opposing it.) While some went into exile to avoid prosecution, 12 of the most prominent pro-independence leaders were tried and convicted by Spain’s Supreme Court for sedition and misuse of funds. The judges eventually dropped the initial charge of rebellion, which had been used to justify holding the trial before the Supreme Court in Madrid rather than a Catalan court. Those who were pardoned in June have spent the bulk of the past three and a half years in prison.
Presidential pardons are commonplace in Spain, if not typically such a public affair. Since 1996, Spanish governments have issued more than 10,000 pardons, most of which involve misappropriation of funds, environmental crimes, and crimes against individual freedoms. (During the same period, US presidents issued 2,768 pardons.) Sánchez’s pardons are partial and maintain restrictions on holding public office. Moreover, the government did not extend pardons to Catalonia’s representatives in exile, such as former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, who lives in Waterloo, Belgium, and recently regained parliamentary immunity as a member of the European Parliament.
The central government’s decision to grant the pardons—a constitutional power of the executive branch—may be a risky political move. Nearly all national polls in recent weeks on the topic have found that over 60 percent of the Spanish electorate is against the pardons. Meanwhile, in Catalonia the opposite is the case: Seven out of 10 people support them. Sánchez’s gamble is that losing voters in the short term by breaking with the conservatives’ approach of denial and judicialization will, in the long term, win him votes in Catalonia and the Basque Country, as well as shore up votes across Spain by turning voters’ attention away from what has been a divisive political issue that has, at a national level, so far only benefited the right.
Casado, the conservative leader, has offered no solution to the territorial crisis. His strategy has followed that of his predecessor Rajoy: denying that there is a territorial problem that requires a political solution and relying on—and instigating—judicial crackdowns. The party has also refused to acknowledge its own role in the escalating standoff with Catalonia, which goes back to 2006 when the party appealed the changes to the statute of autonomy for Catalonia, which had been approved by two parliaments and a popular vote.
As things stand now, it’s not clear that the right stands to benefit from its opposition to the pardons. Until two weeks ago, the PP expected to make political hay out of Sánchez’s concession to the Catalans, even hoping to bring Sánchez’s government down, just as Spain emerges from the pandemic and is about to see $70 billion of European recovery funds injected into the economy and public sector.
Yet, since the onset of the pandemic, the PP’s playbook of relying on the judiciary to do its dirty work has yielded lackluster results in Catalonia. In February, the conservatives had a poor showing in the Catalan regional elections, seeing the party’s support dip from the 8.5 percent it won in 2015 to below 4 percent. During the speculation over Sánchez’s pardons, Casado and other right-wing leaders were caught off-guard when, in mid-June, the Spanish and Catalan corporate elite expressed support for any step, including pardons, that would help defuse the territorial tensions. “There are many opinions among business leaders,” said Antonio Garamendi, president of one of the largest business lobbies in Spain, “but if this ends with things normalizing, we’ll welcome it.”
The Catholic hierarchy, another natural partner of the Spanish right, followed suit. Luis Argüello, leader of the Spanish Episcopal Conference, didn’t mince words, saying, “Like the Catalan bishops, we are in favor of dialogue.” Meanwhile, the PP’s intransigence has only blurred the differences between itself and its far-right rival, Vox, whose approach to Spain’s multinational makeup is to simply outlaw any political party that favors regional independence.
On the Catalan side, Junqueras’s melancholy look upon being released from prison reveals the tensions between the region’s two major parties, the ERC and Junts per Catalunya. Catalonia’s pro-independence bloc has found itself split in half between those who want to reciprocate the government’s willingness to enter into political negotiations for the first time in over a decade and those who balk at Sánchez’s refusal to ever consider a referendum and demand that the government grant amnesty for all those prosecuted, not just pardons for those in jail. The current Catalan president, Pere Aragonès of the center-left ERC, supports the former. He has only been on the job since May, following his party’s narrow victory in February’s regional elections. Like Sánchez, Aragonès has to tread very carefully. Showing too much deference to Madrid risks alienating voters as well as Junts, which has generally resisted the government’s gestures toward reconciliation.
For much of the past decade, the push for independence has tied the far- and center-left to the once-hegemonic Catalan right, which jumped on the independence bandwagon in 2012 as a way to hold onto power in the wake of the Great Recession and distract from the austerity measures it imposed on the region. Today, that alliance is represented by the uncomfortable coalition between the ERC and Junts, a party that is in large measure the heir to the once-dominant Convergència party, which ruled Catalonia for nearly three decades. But it is perhaps more accurate to describe Junts and its predecessor as the mouthpiece of the Catalan economic elite, which in the 2010s implemented drastic cutbacks and privatizations that have eroded the region’s health care and education. Aragonès’s openness to negotiating with Madrid has been met with suspicion by a Catalan right that would rather continue to wage a culture war in the name of an ever-deferred independence than to actually reimagine Catalonia as an autonomous, social-democratic state.
While the central government hopes the pardons will pave the way for a negotiated solution to the crisis, the desire to punish the Catalans for their transgressions still drives other powerful branches of the Spanish state. For much of the Catalan crisis, the judiciary, whose top echelons are notoriously conservative and invested in the idea of Spanish unity, took center stage through public rulings and court orders, as well as the televised, months-long trial of pro-independence leaders. In the wake of the pardons, however, the national Court of Auditors (Tribunal de Cuentas) has stepped into the role of Spain’s most punitive state institution. The court, a commission of political appointees charged with auditing public expenditures, is determined to hold the Catalans personally liable for every euro spent on what it sees as an illegitimate campaign by the regional government to raise international support for its cause. On June 29, the auditors gave three dozen former officeholders and public servants two weeks to post a total of $6.5 million in bail. Critics have pointed out that the Court of Auditors, long a hotbed of political nepotism, is not part of the judiciary and operates without sufficient guarantees for the accused. Its wide-reaching authority means that it can impose fines to individuals who have not been convicted for any wrongdoing.
The rest of Europe has mostly looked on quizzically. The Spanish Supreme Court’s trumped-up charge of rebellion led to several unusual rebukes from courts in Germany and Belgium, which rejected European arrest warrants for some of the Catalan politicians in exile, casting doubt on the way in which the Spanish courts have targeted the independence movement. The convicted Catalans have appealed their case before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which is widely expected to issue a corrective to the Spanish courts. The trial of Catalan leaders also garnered criticism from other international bodies, including Amnesty International, the United Nations, and numerous lawyers and jurist associations. Shortly before the pardons, the assembly of the Council of Europe, a human rights organization representing 47 countries, adopted a resolution that questioned the charges of sedition brought against the Catalans and urged Spain to reform the criminal code on rebellion and sedition, pardon those convicted, stop prosecuting lower-ranking officials, and “enter into an open, constructive dialogue with all political forces in Catalonia.”
Spain’s reputation abroad was certainly a factor in Sánchez’s decision to grant the pardons. Yet image politics are also crucial domestically. The day before defending the pardons before Congress, Sánchez met with Aragonès in a display of mutual good will. Another meeting between the Spanish prime minister and the Catalan president is set to take place during the third week of September, which is when the official talks between Barcelona and Madrid will begin again for the first time in 15 years. Still, the two sides are far apart on many issues, not just the question of self-determination, and it remains to be seen whether the two-year negotiating window they have given themselves will be enough to yield tangible results. Sánchez may want to turn back the clock to 2006 and negotiate revisions to Catalonia’s autonomy statute, as his party once did; Aragonès might want to take the opportunity to return to his party’s social-democratic foundations and insist on autonomy over public spending. For the past decade, Spain’s territorial crisis, relegated to the media and the courts, has divided and paralyzed the left while boosting the right. If Sánchez and Aragonès succeed, the conservative Partido Popular’s dogmatic refusal to dialogue with Catalonia might leave it out of the conversation on Spain’s future altogether.