Catalan President: Now Is Not the Time for a Unilateral Independence Vote

Pere Aragonès discusses negotiations with Madrid, Catalan views on NATO, and prospects for a future referendum.

By , an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy, and , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Catalan leader Pere Aragonès gives a speech.
Catalan leader Pere Aragonès gives a speech.
Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya’s leader Pere Aragonès (left) gives a speech in front of Catalonia’s regional parliament speaker, Laura Borràs, during a session of the Catalan parliament on March 26, 2021. Quique García/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

In 2017, Spain’s northeastern region of Catalonia unilaterally voted for independence, setting off the country’s worst political crisis in decades. Since then, some of the movement’s leaders have fled the country, facing charges of sedition and rebellion if they return. Five years on, criminal cases remain open against leaders who stayed.

Polls indicate that popular support for Catalan independence is down, but tension continues to simmer. The most recent flare-up erupted this year in a spyware scandal, when the phones of Catalan journalists, activists, lawyers, politicians, and their families were hacked with the controversial Israeli spyware Pegasus thought to have been used by the Spanish government. 

This month, negotiations focused on moving the conflict out of criminal courts are set to resume between Madrid and the Catalan government, but mutual suspicion and entrenched disagreements threaten to derail the talks before they get started. Foreign Policy spoke to Pere Aragonès, president of the Catalan government, about negotiations with Madrid, Catalan views on NATO, and whether building a new gas pipeline through the Pyrenees might ameliorate the energy crisis.

In 2017, Spain’s northeastern region of Catalonia unilaterally voted for independence, setting off the country’s worst political crisis in decades. Since then, some of the movement’s leaders have fled the country, facing charges of sedition and rebellion if they return. Five years on, criminal cases remain open against leaders who stayed.

Polls indicate that popular support for Catalan independence is down, but tension continues to simmer. The most recent flare-up erupted this year in a spyware scandal, when the phones of Catalan journalists, activists, lawyers, politicians, and their families were hacked with the controversial Israeli spyware Pegasus thought to have been used by the Spanish government

This month, negotiations focused on moving the conflict out of criminal courts are set to resume between Madrid and the Catalan government, but mutual suspicion and entrenched disagreements threaten to derail the talks before they get started. Foreign Policy spoke to Pere Aragonès, president of the Catalan government, about negotiations with Madrid, Catalan views on NATO, and whether building a new gas pipeline through the Pyrenees might ameliorate the energy crisis.

The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Foreign Policy: Negotiations between Madrid and Catalonia about the question of independence are set to resume this month after a long hiatus. Where do things stand, and what do you hope to get out of the discussions?

Pere Aragonès: First, we had that important step by the Spanish government that was the pardons that enable the release from jail of the people who are imprisoned. This pardon does not cover all the penalty. The second [step] was an agreement about the status of the Catalan language. That’s not the issue of the negotiation process, but we see this agreement as a confidence-building measure. So it shows, or is seen, as the Spanish government showing willingness to engage in a negotiation. And the third was an agreement about what we’ve called “dejudicialization.” When we talk about repression, the Spanish government says there is no repression. But they know that there are some problems that must be solved. So the idea is to advance some reforms, probably [Spain’s] Criminal Code, about the penalty of sedition and some others that are not in accordance with international standards.

FP: So it’s taking the process away from the courts, basically taking the criminal element out of it.

PA: That’s the idea.

FP: How seriously do you think the government of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is taking these talks? Cynics say it’s a ploy to keep his coalition together. Do you think they’re acting in good faith?

PA: Well, our leverage is that they depend on our votes in the Spanish parliament to pass the budget. Pedro Sánchez relied on our votes to be elected as president. So I think that they realize that they must do something. But there are always other issues in the agenda that are more important. Now, inflation obviously is very important, as was COVID some months ago, etc. I saw some public statements of Pedro Sánchez saying, “well, negotiations with Catalonia must take time, and it’s important it must take time.” That’s important, but we have to take [negotiations] from the medium term to short-term commitments. And I think here is where they have to demonstrate that they want seriously to be part of this negotiating process. 

FP: Recent opinion polls have indicated that support for Catalan independence is down. What explains the decline?

PA: I think that the political environment affects the way you show in the polls. I have to remember that in July 2017, before the referendum of Oct. 1, 2017, the polls suggested the same: that support for independence was about 40 percent and that the votes against independence could win. But also the same polls now say that between 70 and 80 percent of Catalan people accept that the political conflict must be solved through negotiation and through a referendum.

FP: Recently, the National Catalan Assembly—a pro-independence civil society organization—suggested making another unilateral declaration of independence in the second half of 2023, but you shot that down, saying it wasn’t the right moment or the right strategy. Why not?

PA: Because I think [about] the conditions that we didn’t have in 2017, the constraints that limited us to reach independence. The conditions that we didn’t have then, we don’t have now. We don’t have and we need to have a wider majority besides Catalan people. We need international alliances. Especially now in Europe after COVID, where the role of states has been strengthened, and with the situation of war in the Ukraine and the positions of NATO, I think that unilateral independence now has more constraints than four years before.

FP: What is your position on NATO, and do you think that an independent Catalonia would join it?

PA: This is an open debate in Catalonia. I think that Catalonia must be part of the European scheme of security. That does not mean exactly to be part of NATO or not; that would be a discussion for the members of the parliament in an independent Catalonia. But I think Catalonia must be committed within the national security. We play an important role from a geopolitical point of view because of Catalonia’s place in the Mediterranean, so we’re in a very critical area. Now with problems of energy supply in Europe, we can play an important role because of the gas infrastructure that we have, especially in Barcelona’s port.

FP: Speaking of energy, what is your take on building the MidCat pipeline through the Pyrenees?

PA: I think it’s an opportunity to ensure the supply of gas not only to Southern Europe [but] especially to Germany and its neighboring states. The MidCat, I think, is necessary. We support MidCat, with the condition that it must be prepared to transport hydrogen in the future.

Clara Gutman-Argemí is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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