The rulings in Catalonia could save Spain, or destroy it
The Spanish Supreme Court’s punishing verdicts on the Catalan independence leaders are set to divide the nation
Earlier today, Spain’s highest court either doomed or saved its country.
Oriol Junqueras, the former Vice-President of Catalonia, and one of the most prominent champions of Catalan independence, has been sentenced to 13 years in prison. According to the BBC, prosecutors “sought up to 25 years.” Charged along with him were eleven other pro-Catalan independence leaders, eight of them receiving prison sentences closer to nine years, and three escaping with no prison time whatsoever.
We won’t understand the significance of this verdict for decades. Any historic event seems obvious in retrospect, but as you watch it unfold you can rarely see where it’s going.
What we know is this result won’t fully satisfy anybody. The prison sentences are too short for hard-line opponents of Catalan independence. While those who support the integrity of Spain will be happy to see charges of “sedition and the misuse of public funds” brought against the Catalan leaders, the fact that, for nine of them, the charge of “rebellion” was dropped will seem like too much of a concession made to placate Catalan voters ahead of a General Election in which the ruling Socialist Worker’s Party is seeking a greater personal mandate.
That said, the sentences are massively too long to appease those who were hoping the Spanish Supreme Court would give a less aggressive ruling.
Feelings of hopelessness and depression will be felt particularly by the families of the independence leaders. The son of Jordi Sanchez, a prominent Catalan politician who has been jailed since earlier this year, says he worries his father “will never get out of prison.”
All this makes it hard to say what will happen next. Catalonia isn’t the only region of Spain where some are vying for greater autonomy or even independence. Almost every region in the country has an active separatist movement, though their relative strengths vary wildly. People from the Basque country, northwest of Catalonia, has gone to great lengths to assert their independence, especially during periods of intense pressure like the Spanish Civil War and the Francoist dictatorship that followed.
Everything might work out okay for the Spanish government. This Supreme Court ruling sets a severe precedent for budding separatistas (separatists) elsewhere. Chances are, those seeking to distance their regions from the central state will follow the path many moderate Basque nationalists have taken, doing what historian Paul Preston calls “working within the state” — making deals with the Spanish government for more autonomy, whilst promising not to push the matter any further.
Certainly, there won’t be another independence referendum soon. And so long as the threat of nationalist terrorism (a very real issue throughout Spanish history) continues to not rear its head, the Catalan independence movement might well die down. Struck of all its major leaders, the test facing the movement ahead, to re-organise itself from the ground up and continue to argue for its goals, two years after the original vote, will either make or break the cause entirely. If the Catalan independence side survives this, it will prove itself ready to survive almost anything. If it doesn’t, then it’s over.
Sounds good, on the Spanish side. But, as with all politics, it’s a whole lot more complicated than that.
For one thing, the post-referendum 2017 elections held for Catalonia’s regional parliament, the Generalitat, returned a pro-independence government that is still in power today. At the April 2019 Spanish General Election (not to be confused with the new elections scheduled for November 2019), the pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia-Sovereigntists (ERC-S) group won six more seats in the national parliament.
If we break the vote down a bit more, we can see that only a plurality (roughly 45%) of Catalan voters supported pro-independence parties in these elections. This does mean there’s a majority for remaining with Spain, but where votes for independence are split across three parties (the left-wing ERC-S, the liberal JuntsxCat, and the far-left CUP), all of which are on the left, the votes against independence are divided between four parties, ranging from the far-left Podemos, the centre-left Socialist Worker’s Party, the centre-right Ciudadanos, and the right-wing People’s Party. When it comes down to independence versus remaining part of Spain, ideological differences may fracture the remain side more those supporting independence. It’s worth noting also that all the pro-independence parties are currently working together to form a majority government in the Generalitat.
The severity of the Supreme Court ruling will most likely seem to be a mistake. Either being too harsh, or too forgiving. Whatever happens next, the judges will be included in the blame.
It’s hard not to accept some of the Catalan leaders’ points. Whether or not the 2017 referendum was, as President of the Catalan language and culture organisation Òmnium Cultural, Jordi Cuixart, argues, “an exercise of collective dignity,” it was a non-violent expression of the people’s will, and if the Spanish government had simply let is pass without sending in armed police to suppress voting, the result would have probably swayed against independence.
On the other hand, in a country that is still a young democracy, with memories of nationalist terror groups terrifying people in years past, the concerns of the Spanish government can, to some degree, be understood. However, they have undoubtedly made a great many mistakes since the referendum, and have treated Catalans in an overly militaristic way not unreminiscent of the Francoist era.
This ruling might save Spain. It might destroy it. We can’t fast-forward through time, so we’ll just have to wait and see.