Sánchez Walks Back Promises to Catalans

The socialist could disappoint moderate Catalan nationalists, whose support he needs in Congress.

Pedro Sánchez
Prime Ministers António Costa of Portugal, Pedro Sánchez of Spain and Stefan Löfven of Sweden attend a meeting of European socialist party leaders in Brussels, October 15, 2020 (PES)

Spain’s ruling Socialist Party is walking back its promises to Catalans. It has delayed, for the second time, a reform of the sedition law under which Catalonia’s separatist leaders were imprisoned. And it has poured cold water on hopes that it might allow a Catalan referendum on independence.

Disappointing Catalans is not without risk. The Socialists need the support of Catalonia’s largest separatist party, the Republican Left, for their majority in Congress. Longer term, it makes Catalan secession more, not less, likely.

Catalans already know to expect little from the conservative People’s Party, which opposed Catalan home rule. If moderate Catalan nationalists become disillusioned in Spain’s other major party as well, some may decide their only recourse is to break away.


Reform of the sedition law under which nine Catalan separatists, including the former vice president of the region, Oriol Junqueras, were imprisoned in 2019 has been pushed to next year.

This follows an earlier delay. When Pedro Sánchez convinced Basque and Catalan parties to return him to power in 2019, his left-wing coalition promised to reform the sedition law by the end of 2020.

Sánchez did pardon Junqueras and the other separatists, who had been found guilty of sedition against the Spanish state for organizing an unsanctioned independence referendum in 2017.

But their convictions haven’t been overturned. Prosecutors still seek the extradition of five politicians who fled Catalonia when Spain suspended its autonomy. Among them is the region’s former president, Carles Puigdemont, who lives in Belgium.

Two of the nine separatists who remained in Spain to face trial led Catalonia’s largest pro-independence organizations: the Catalan National Assembly and Òmnium Cultural. The two men, Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart, did little more than encourage Catalans to vote. (Most unionists boycotted the referendum, which saw 43 percent turnout.) By treating them no different from the politicians, Spain’s Supreme Court effectively criminalized Catalan separatism.

Amnesty International and the Council of Europe have urged Spain to rewrite its laws.


Sánchez never promised to sanction a referendum, arguing it is impossible under current law. The Constitution makes reference to the “indissoluble” unity of Spain, which the conservative majority on the Constitutional Court has interpreted as denying any region the right to break away.

Changing the Constitution would require two-thirds majorities in both chambers of Congress. That is currently impossible: the People’s Party and far-right Vox (Voice) could block any attempt at reform, even if Sánchez’ own Socialist Party were united behind it (which it isn’t).

But there is a difference between explaining that and what Salvador Illa, the leader of the Socialist Party in Catalonia, did in an interview with the Heraldo de Aragón:

There will be no referendum for independence in 2030 or even in 2040.

What is the point of making such a sweeping statement? The Socialists not only need the Republican Left’s support in the national Congress; Illa would need their support if he ever wants to lead a left-wing government in Catalonia. By ruling out a legal vote on independence, which up to 80 percent of Catalans want, Illa gives credence to separatist hardliners at the expense of the Republican Left.

The Republicans has been trying to convince separatist voters that they can work with the Socialists to get concrete benefits for Catalonia. The far-left Popular Unity Candidacy and center-right Together for Catalonia have been saying the Socialists can’t be trusted. It is starting to sound like they were right.

More autonomy

In his defense, Sánchez did agree to expand Barcelona’s El Prat Airport, invest €200 million in other Catalan infrastructure and hand control of university scholarships to Catalan authorities in time for the 2022-23 academic year.

His government is also willing to devolve responsibility for health care, infrastructure, law enforcement and social security; areas where Catalan and Spanish competencies currently overlap.

I still believe more self-government is the (only) way to keep Catalonia in Spain. Support for independence has seldom topped 50 percent, but two in three Catalans are dissatisfied with the autonomy they have. Don’t force them to choose between secession and the status quo.

But such devolution will be less convincing if it isn’t tied to political reforms that recognize Catalan self-determination.