Will pardoning Catalan leaders calm Spanish tensions?

Spanish PM hoping to create ‘spirit of dialogue’ as separatist leaders vow to fight on

Pro-independence supporters gather in Barcelona in 2018 on the first anniversary of the referendum
Pro-independence supporters gather in Barcelona in 2018 on the first anniversary of the referendum
(Image credit: David Ramos/Getty Images)

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has announced that his government will pardon the nine leaders of Catalonia’s failed 2017 independence referendum in an effort to promote reconciliation in the divided nation.

“To reach an agreement, someone must make the first step. The Spanish government will make that first step now,” Sanchez told members of Catalan civil society at an event in Barcelona, adding that it should promote “a spirit of dialogue and concord”.

But the move “could be unpopular and risky”, Reuters reports, as “separatist protesters in Barcelona clamour for a new referendum on independence and opposition parties in Madrid threaten to challenge the pardons in court”.

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Inflamed tensions

In 2019 Spain’s Supreme Court sentenced nine Catalan leaders for their role in an unauthorised independence referendum and a short-lived declaration of independence. They included Oriol Junqueras, the deputy head of Catalonia’s government during the 2017 referendum, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison, and Raul Romeva, who was sentenced to 12 years for his role as Catalonia’s foreign affairs chief.

Speaking to The Times from his prison cell in Bages county, Jordi Cuixart responded to the news of his pardoning with a message of defiance.

“The pardons wouldn’t solve the political conflict between Catalonia and Spain,” Cuixart, president of Catalan organisation Omnium Cultural who was serving nine years, told the paper. “It is not an act of magnanimity granting the pardons.

“I should not have been in jail for merely exercising my right to freedom of speech and protest. I was condemned for asking people to go to vote,” he continued, adding that the pardons merely showed “the “weakness of the Spanish state”.

Cuixart’s refusal to accept his imprisonment was replicated by a boycott of Sanchez’s speech in Madrid by Catalonia’s pro-independence government. Opinion polls show “close to half” the population support independence, Reuters says.

Meanwhile, separate polls “suggest about 60% of Spaniards are against freeing the politicians and activists”, the news agency adds, with plans in place for opposition parties to challenge the pardons in court.

Sanchez’s political opponents have “threatened to launch legal challenges in Spain and Europe” if the pardons go ahead, EU Observer reports, with the centre-right Popular Party (PP) saying it would start a parliamentary battle of “institutional pressure” against the plan.

PP also said “that it will appeal against granting pardons at the Supreme Court”, the news site says, while far-right Vox party said it would “organise street protests if Sanchez pardons the separatist figures”.

Sanchez would find it difficult if the pardons are challenged in Spain’s highest court, which has already said it is against “total or partial” clemency, adding that the Catalan leaders have not shown “the slightest evidence or faintest hint of contrition”.

The prime minister faces a struggle balancing the competing demands of Spain’s majority parties, and the minority movement for Catalan independence, with Catalonian demonstrators claiming that even a pardon would be a “farce”, Reuters says.

“Pardons are a small thing, the truth is that they’ve taken our freedom of speech at all levels,” a pro-independence protester told the news agency. “We have our legitimate government in prison or in exile, and this is very serious in a democracy.”

Balancing act

Granting pardons is an “attempt to calm tensions in the 300-year-old dispute” over Catalan separatism, writes The Times’ Spain correspondent Isambard Wilkinson. But “it is a gamble that most Spaniards oppose – including 60% of Sanchez’s Socialist voters”.

The reaction of both pro- and anti-independence Spaniards, including the opposition parties, has shown “the risk of destabilising his fragile coalition government and refilling the sails of the independence movement”, he adds.

Sanchez told the assembled members of Catalan civil society that the measure would begin to heal the divided nation, ending his speech with the words: “Catalonia, Catalans we love you.” But speaking about unity is a far bigger task than achieving it.

Sanchez is unlikely to dwell on the pardons, The Times’ Wilkinson adds. Instead he will be hoping that “the political agenda will move on quickly” amid “hoped-for economic improvements and a successful vaccination campaign”.

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Joe Evans is the world news editor at TheWeek.co.uk. He joined the team in 2019 and held roles including deputy news editor and acting news editor before moving into his current position in early 2021. He is a regular panellist on The Week Unwrapped podcast, discussing politics and foreign affairs. 

Before joining The Week, he worked as a freelance journalist covering the UK and Ireland for German newspapers and magazines. A series of features on Brexit and the Irish border got him nominated for the Hostwriter Prize in 2019. Prior to settling down in London, he lived and worked in Cambodia, where he ran communications for a non-governmental organisation and worked as a journalist covering Southeast Asia. He has a master’s degree in journalism from City, University of London, and before that studied English Literature at the University of Manchester.