Tough Talk on Catalonia Might Win an Election, but It Won’t Unite Spain

Pedro Sánchez has turned up the heat on Catalan separatists in the hope of winning on Nov. 10, but his rhetoric and the Supreme Court’s harsh sentences of separatist leaders will only strengthen the secessionist movement.

People march during a pro-independence demonstration against the conviction of Catalan separatist leaders in Barcelona on Oct. 26.
People march during a pro-independence demonstration against the conviction of Catalan separatist leaders in Barcelona on Oct. 26. LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images

On Oct. 14, nine of Catalonia’s leading secessionists were handed prison sentences of between nine and 13 years by Spain’s Supreme Court for their role in arranging the illegal independence referendum of October 2017. These draconian sentences, given by a judiciary determined to make examples of the defendants, are already resulting in a radicalized independence movement—precisely the opposite of the outcome that the judges and the Spanish government were hoping for. This was evident on Oct. 26, when around 10,000 supporters of an activist group called the Committees for the Defense of the Republic clashed violently with riot police in central Barcelona. According to official figures, more than 600 people have been injured in the protests since Oct. 14. 

On that now historic day, Catalonia’s former vice president, Oriol Junqueras, who was found guilty of sedition and misuse of public funds in connection with the referendum, received the longest sentence of 13 years. Dolors Bassa, the former Catalan labor minister; Jordi Turull, the former Catalan government spokesman; and Raül Romeva, the former Catalan external relations minister, were all sentenced to 12 years for sedition. Carme Forcadell, the ex-speaker of the Catalan Parliament, will serve 11 and a half years, while four other prominent secessionists will go to jail for between nine and 10 and a half years, also for sedition.

None of the defendants were found guilty of the more serious crime of rebellion, which requires an element of violence and for which they could have served up to 25 years. The far-right Vox party has criticized the Supreme Court for this, with its general secretary saying that there were “perfectly evident acts of violence” back in October 2017. 

The sentences for sedition are still excessively harsh, especially when compared with the precedents. In November 2014, then-Catalan President Artur Mas tried to hold a referendum on splitting from the rest of Spain, but it was blocked by the country’s Constitutional Court. The same court also declared Mas’s suggested alternative—a “process of citizen participation”—unconstitutional.

Mas ignored the second warning and in the resulting vote, held on Nov. 9, 2014, 80 percent of the approximately 40 percent of voters who turned out cast ballots for an independent Catalonia. Retribution came from an unlikely source, and in March 2017 the Catalan high court found Mas guilty of disobeying Spain’s Constitutional Court, for which he was banned from public office for two years and fined 36,500 euros (about $40,500). 

Given that the course of action pursued by secessionists in 2014 and 2017 were practically the same, the discrepancy between their respective punishments points to one conclusion: that this time around, Spain’s Supreme Court—the third branch of the Spanish government and the country’s most powerful judicial body—became involved in order to make examples of Junqueras and his colleagues, permanently debilitating the Catalan independence movement in the process. (The Supreme Court didn’t get involved in the 2014 referendum.)

It’s already obvious that the hefty sentences will have no such effect. Since their announcement, there have been huge demonstrations throughout Catalonia, especially in Barcelona, where around 350,000 separatists gathered on Oct. 26 in a largely peaceful demonstration. Those in favor of national unity struck back on Oct. 27, with some 80,000 anti-independence protesters marching through the Catalonian capital under the slogan “For coexistence, democracy, and Catalonia. Enough!” 

On the day that the sentences were announced, more than 60 flights from Barcelona’s El Prat airport were canceled due to disruptions caused by protesters. Responding to a call made by the Democratic Tsunami movement, thousands of people headed to the airport, some making the three-hour journey on foot when police closed metro stations in the Catalonian capital. Protests occurred every night of the week of Oct. 14, with violent clashes between far-right nationalists and separatists erupting at some of them.

The climax of a tumultuous few days came on Oct. 18, when Barcelona ground to a halt as a result of a general strike arranged by separatists. On the same day, the giants of Spanish and European soccer, Real Madrid and Barcelona, announced that their first meeting of the season, the so-called clásico, would not be held on Oct. 26 due to unrest in the Catalonian capital and instead scheduled the match for Dec. 18. 

Acting Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has criticized Catalan President Quim Torra for not explicitly condemning the violence that marked some of the demonstrations or the general strike. In a well-timed departure from the rhetoric of moderation and tolerance that he has used up until now, Sánchez said the court’s sentences confirm “the defeat of a movement that failed to gain internal support and international recognition.”

Despite his stated desire for a dialogue-based approach to the Catalan issue, Sánchez is really just as opposed to secession as the centrist Ciudadanos party, which was founded in Barcelona in 2006 to oppose the city’s growing pro-independence movement. Ciudadanos President Albert Rivera said the sentences showed that “the good guys have won.” The Socialist leader is clearly hoping that this tougher stance will enable him to steal votes from Ciudadanos and the People’s Party in the Nov. 10 general election, as those two parties favor a zero-tolerance approach to the Catalan independence movement. 

It’s questionable, though, whether Catalan secessionists have been defeated, despite the formidable difficulties they face in turning their dream into reality. The crowds on the streets of Barcelona over the last two weeks show this, as well as announcements made by leading secessionists such as Carles Puigdemont, the former Catalan president who has been in self-imposed exile in Belgium ever since presiding over the October 2017 referendum. Puigdemont called the sentences an “atrocity” and concluded a Guardian article on the subject by promising that the secessionists “will never back down.” Junqueras tweeted that the independistas will “return stronger and with even more belief than ever,” and Torra has declared his intention to hold another independence referendum within the next two years. 

The nine convicted secessionists have already said they will appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, but they’re unlikely to find succor there, as Brussels has declared the Catalonia conflict a Spanish affair that needs to be resolved internally. The fact that Puigdemont has been able to live in exile ever since the October 2017 referendum, though, suggests some sympathy with his plight, as did the Belgian authorities’ refusal to extradite him for his role in the 2017 referendum. In the wake of the Supreme Court sentences, Spain renewed an international arrest warrant for the former Catalan president, but on Tuesday a Brussels court delayed his extradition hearing to Dec. 16. 

The international community has also refused to become involved in the Catalonia issue, with one notable exception. In May, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ordered the immediate release of three secessionists: Junqueras; Jordi Sànchez, the former president of the Catalan National Assembly; and Jordi Cuixart, the president of a Catalan language and culture organization. (Jordi Sànchez and Cuixart both received sentences of nine years on Oct. 14.)

The working group claimed that their pre-trial incarceration violated international law, but the Spanish government labeled its report “flawed.” In fact, Prime Minister Sánchez repeatedly refused to intervene on behalf of the jailed secessionists, staying true to his supposed belief in an impassable line between the judiciary and the government’s executive and legislative branches.

Yet that belief wasn’t much in evidence at the end of last year, when the Socialist leader vowed to reverse the Supreme Court’s ruling in a controversial mortgage tax case. “No power is free from criticism,” he said at the time. Clearly, Sánchez’s belief in the separation of powers is flexible rather than absolute: He has made no such pledge since Oct. 14, instead praising the Catalan separatists’ sentences as the conclusion of an “exemplary legal process” and the beginning of a “new stage,” adding that his acting Socialist government would “fully comply” with them. 

Spain’s acting economy minister, Nadia Calviño, has also voiced her hope for the beginning of a “new era … [of] peaceful coexistence” between Catalan secessionists and the Spanish government. The sentences handed out on Oct. 14, though, seem to be paving the way for the opposite: Since their announcement, Sánchez has been ignoring Torra’s calls, refusing point-blank to discuss next moves with the Catalan president.

Without effective communication, there can be no improvement of relations between Catalan separatists and the central government—relations that the Supreme Court’s sentences have only worsened. Whatever its political orientation, the next Spanish government needs to talk to secessionists instead of trying to ignore them, because they’re not going to disappear. 

Mark Nayler is a freelance journalist based in Spain. He writes on Spanish politics and culture for southern Spain's English-language newspaper, Sur in English, and for The Spectator.

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