The events surrounding the ill-advised push for Catalan independence from two years ago and the subsequent fallout, culminating in street violence last week, have been distressing; for Catalonia, for the rest of Spain and certainly for some of us who live and work in Barcelona. The crisis is a major headache for the EU as well, at a sensitive political moment. As for Spain, it is no exaggeration to say that these events represent “one of the most serious institutional crises ever faced by the democratic system born out of the 1978 Constitution”.
What is therefore badly needed is some sort of closure and, above all, solutions. Objectively, we may have to wait for quite a while for closure, so what about solutions?
The background to the crisis is challenging to say the least. On October 14th, nine separatist Catalan leaders were sentenced to between nine and thirteen years in prison. The verdicts have provoked unrest throughout Catalonia; crowds of protesters blocked the main airport, organised vigils at main squares throughout the region, cut off major roads and so on. Although protests have somewhat subsided, they are likely to continue. Regardless of which side of the argument one is, it is clear that this state of affairs can only further already significant divisions in Catalan society – divisions which almost exclusively derive from local political dynamics and people’s views on the independence. Social cohesion is hardly perfect in Catalonia these days.
The most important question is what to do next. That won’t be easy to work out or implement. I believe that pardoning the convicted separatists may work for everyone, except for extremists on all sides who tend to thrive on the sort of part-time mayhem that we have been witnessing in the last ten days or so.
Granting a pardon would be contentious and politically risky. It may anger patriotic Spaniards of all political persuasions and it could be perceived as caving in to the pressure coming from the pro-independence violent fringe (we must differentiate between them and the vast majority of peaceful protesters). Moreover, some of the convicted separatists have said that they would do everything again and that another independence referendum was inevitable, which is not exactly helpful. And to complicate matters even more, Oriol Junqueras, the leader of the Republican Left party, said that he would not ask for a pardon.
Any affirmative action would become impossible should the right-wing parties (PP, Ciudadanos and Vox) win the upcoming general elections, scheduled for November 10. The caretaker prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, has more or less ruled out a pardon, which was the only thing he could have done in the circumstances. But if he wins again this may change. If Mr Sanchez were to act boldly and immediately and if he managed to bring about genuine improvement, his actions would probably, although controversial in the eyes of many, become electorally irrelevant in several years.
If the convicted politicians and activists were pardoned, it would send a powerful message, in Spain and throughout the world. Strategically, Spain could benefit. The gesture may at a stroke remove, or alleviate, objections of heavy-handedness by Spanish authorities. It would certainly boost the country’s image abroad. It would represent a splendid gesture of good will, impossible to misconstrue. It would show consideration and respect for pro-independence Catalans; something which is in quite short supply.
Most importantly, pardoning the convicted separatists would help heal the Catalan society and recalibrate the region’s politics. At the very least it would be a promising start. It might initiate a genuine debate about what sort of Catalonia is wanted by the majority of the people here.
The newly-freed leaders would have the opportunity to reconsider their rather counter-productive approach. Misplaced grandstanding without social majority for independence and with no serious support from abroad is hardly clever. It may well prevent their becoming martyrs to the cause and inspire future generations of separatists. It would re-establish dialogue as the default way of doing politics. It is quite impossible to exaggerate how important this is.
Given how much is at stake – political stability and peaceful coexistence in Catalonia and the rest of Spain – a bold, generous gesture is required; the sooner the better.