Catalonia’s Republican Left entered talks to support Pedro Sánchez’ second bid for power with three goals:
- A resumption of dialogue between the Catalan and Spanish governments.
- An amnesty for party leader Oriol Junqueras and the eight other separatist leaders who are in prison.
- A legal referendum on Catalan independence.
They got a “yes” on the first, a “maybe” on the second and a “no” on the third.
They are also promised more autonomy in the coalition agreement Sánchez has negotiated with the far-left party Podemos.
It’s not a bad deal. The Republicans should take it.
Returning to dialogue, suspended since the ruling parties in Catalonia tried and failed to break away from Spain in 2017, was the minimum Sánchez could agree to and he has.
His coalition deal with Podemos also recognizes that the independence crisis in Catalonia requires a political solution.
Both are important first steps.
Sánchez’ conservative predecessor, Mariano Rajoy, refused to so much as listen to Catalan demands for more autonomy and a legal independence referendum. When the Catalans, after years of hearing “no” from Madrid, held a referendum anyway, Rajoy sent in riot police and prosecuted Catalan leaders, including Junqueras, for breaking the law. This had the entirely predictable effect of alienating Catalans even more from the rest of Spain.
The fate of Junqueras, the former Catalan vice president, and the eight other separatist leaders who are in prison for leading the failed independence push in 2017, remains a sticking point.
Junqueras was found guilty in October of misusing public funds and sedition against the Spanish state.
While in pre-trial detention, Junqueras was elected to the European Parliament for Catalonia. Spain argued his election was illegitimate, but the European Court of Justice disagreed, ruling two weeks ago that Junqueras became a member the European Parliament — with parliamentary immunity — the moment was elected.
His party insist Junqueras must now be released from prison. Spain’s solicitor general agrees, but she also argues the European Parliament should suspend Junqueras after swearing him in, which would send him back to the prison.
Sánchez could pardon Junqueras, but that would outrage the Spanish right, which considers him a traitor.
The European court ruling could give Sánchez political cover. Even if he doesn’t want to give Junqueras a full pardon, condemning the man to thirteen years in prison for giving Catalans a say in their own future would be excessive.
A legal independence referendum was never Sánchez’ to give.
The major political parties in Spain and its courts believe one is impossible under the Constitution, which speaks of the “indissoluble unity” of the country.
Spain has changed its Constitution before and the Socialists aren’t dead set against reform. But they can’t do it on their own. Changing the Constitution requires two-thirds majorities in both chambers of Congress. That would require the support of Rajoy’s People’s Party, which voted against Catalan home rule in 2005 and now calls for its indefinite suspension.
Catalans shouldn’t stop asking for a legal referendum. According to polls, between 70 and 80 percent want one. The Catalans have a right to self-determination. But it shouldn’t come at the expense of other, more concrete gains.
I believe the best thing for Catalonia would not be independence, which would split families, hurt businesses and mean leaving the EU and NATO, at least temporarily, but rather more autonomy, ideally inside a federal Spain, and ideally approved by Catalan voters in a referendum. (A referendum on independence may be illegal, but Catalonia previously held a referendum in 2006 on a revised autonomy statute, which was passed over the People’s Party’s objections.)
Sánchez’ program moves in that direction.
He and Podemos promise to complete the transfer of competencies that were promised in the 2006 statute, specifically in areas of labor law, maritime rescue and scholarships.
They also argue for minimizing shared powers in health care, infrastructure, law enforcement and social security to “avoid ambiguity” as well as a new funding model to resolve the “shortcomings, asymmetries and ambiguities of the current system.”
Catalans have long demanded fiscal rights similar to the Basques, who collect their own taxes and send part of the money to Madrid. Catalonia collects only a portion of its taxes. The bulk is collected by the Spanish government, which then sends less money back to Catalonia. As the second richest region, Catalonia contributes more to the Spanish treasury than it takes out.
Catalans will be skeptical. They have heard similar promises before, including from Sánchez, who convinced the independence parties to support him the first time he came to power, in 2018, and then did nothing for them.
The difference now is that the promises are in writing and they are made not just to the Catalans but to Podemos, which will join the government as a full partner. Of the major Spanish parties, it is the most sympathetic to the Catalan cause.
The alternatives are forcing Sánchez into a grand coalition with the People’s Party, which has fought Catalan home rule every step of the way, or early elections.
The latest polls do not show much change from November, but if Spaniards are asked to vote a third time in a year they may well change their minds. Some could stay home, which would hurt the left more than the right. The Catalans could lose their kingmaker position in Congress. The People’s Party might even win a majority in combination with the far-right Vox, which doesn’t just want to suspend Catalan autonomy but abolish it.
Sánchez’ offer doesn’t give Catalan separatists everything they wanted and it’s not a solution for everything. But it is a fair compromise and possibly the best deal they will get.