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Sánchez Can No Longer Ignore Catalonia

A spying scandal shatters what little hope Catalan nationalists had of negotiating with Madrid.

Pedro Sánchez
Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez speaks at a meeting of his Socialist Workers’ Party in Madrid, April 9 (PSOE/Eva Ercolanese)

The revelation that dozens of Catalonia’s separatist leaders were hacked should compel Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez to finally make good on his promises to the region.

The Citizen Lab, based in the University of Toronto, Canada, discovered that at least 65 Catalans, ranging from the president of the region to its members of the European Parliament, were targeted or infected with an Israeli spyware that is only sold to governments. Spain’s National Intelligence Center hasn’t confirmed it was behind the hacks, but who else would be interested in spying on Catalan leaders?

Catalans didn’t have much faith in the Spanish government to begin with. This news threatens to shatter what little hope there was of negotiating a way out of the impasse that has lasted for five years.

“It is really hard to trust anyone when everything points to the fact that they’ve been spying on you,” Catalan president Pere Aragonès told reporters.

Imagine if the British government had been listening in on the conversations of Nicola Sturgeon and her cabinet. Would Scots still trust London to negotiate in good faith?

The difference, of course, is that the United Kingdom recognizes Scotland’s right to self-determination and allowed the country to hold an independence referendum in 2014 whereas Spain sent riot police into Catalonia and suspended the region’s autonomy when it voted to break away in 2017.

Listening in

Besides Aragonès, his three immediate predecessors were targeted, including Carles Puigdemont, who was president at the time of the 2017 referendum and who fled to Belgium to avoid arrest for declaring Catalonia independent.

According to Citizen Lab, the hacking started in 2017 and continued into 2020.

The spyware was activated when victims clicked on a fake message appearing to come from an airline, courier, media platform or even the Spanish government. The operator would gain full access to the smartphone, including its camera and microphone. So spies could listen to not only phone calls, but even conversations held in proximity of a hacked device.

All the members of Puigdemont’s cabinet were targeted, as was his lawyer. The same politicians were prosecuted for organizing the 2017 referendum, which Spain’s highest court had outlawed. Those who did not escape Spain were arrested and sentenced to between nine and thirteen years in prison for “sedition” and “rebellion” against the state.

Little progress

Sánchez came to power in 2019 with the support of Catalan nationalists, in part because he promised to pardon the prisoners.

He did a year ago, but almost no progress has been made since.

Sánchez, a Socialist, acknowledged that the judicialization of the Catalan question by the previous conservative government had failed. He promised to restore political dialogue, yet Catalan and Spanish ministers have only met twice in two years.

Héctor Gómez, the spokesman of Sánchez’ Socialist Party in Congress, claims the prime minister has been too busy. First there was coronavirus. Then energy prices rose and truckers went on strike, causing shortages in supermarkets. Now there is the war in Ukraine. Catalonia is not a priority.

Hide behind the courts

The point of dialogue was to end the lawfare of the right, yet the Socialists maintain it can only take place “within the confines of the Constitution,” meaning a legal referendum on independence is out of the question.

They recently took another issue off the table when judges ordered that 25 percent of Catalan education must be in Spanish. The law merely stipulates that schools must be bilingual, and most are. A few schools teach entirely in Catalan, which prompted a lawsuit. Judges set a 25-percent Spanish (Castilian) minimum in order to be able to enforce the law.

(If you’re curious, Jordi Argelaguet of the Autonomous University of Barcelona has more on this issue.)

According to Gómez, “Court sentences are to be complied with.” But judges don’t make the law. Lawmakers do. If politicians are unhappy with the 25-percent ruling, or if they disagree with judges’ interpretation that the Constitution’s reference to the “indissoluble” unity of Spain means no region can vote to break away, they could change the law.

The Socialists hide behind the courts, because they don’t want to discuss such reforms. They know that concessions to Catalans are unpopular in the rest of Spain.

Other way around

Catalan support for independence has fallen since 2017, but one in two still feel the region has too little control. Only 35 percent are satisfied with the status quo. 72 percent believe Catalonia has a right to self-determination, but a majority of 54 percent would be content with either remaining an autonomous community or becoming a federal state. (The last option would require constitutional change.)

The problem is that other Spaniards — with the exception of the Basques — see things differently. Half believe Catalonia has too much autonomy already. 38 percent would weaken or revoke Catalan self-rule. This is also the position of Spain’s two right-wing parties, the People’s Party and Vox (Voice).

The Socialists, who are popular with unionists in Catalonia and voters in the south of Spain who oppose Catalan self-government, would prefer to muddle through.

Benefit of the doubt

In the past, the Socialists stuck their neck out to give Catalonia autonomy. The right opposed it then. The People’s Party even petitioned the Constitutional Court to review the autonomy statute the Socialists negotiated with Catalans in 2006. Judges overruled several articles of it in 2010, which was the beginning of the secessionist crisis Catalonia and Spain are still in.

When Sánchez won the election in 2019, he offered Catalans a good deal. In addition to pardoning the prisoners and restoring official dialogue, he proposed to complete the transfer of competencies that were promised in the 2006 statute and sort out ambiguities in areas where competencies overlap.

When they were in power, conservatives used such ambiguities to delay infrastructure investments in Catalonia and force the region to cut social security benefits, even though they are paid for by Catalan taxes.

Hardline separatists were unconvinced, but Aragonès’ party, the Republican Left, gave Sánchez the benefit of the doubt.

Still waiting

The only power that has been devolved in the last three years is the awarding of university scholarships. Catalans are still waiting for almost fifty more powers, ranging from maritime rescue to elements of labor law, that were promised in 2006.

Sánchez has made no concrete proposals to devolve powers beyond the autonomy statute.

He has refused to reform the antiquated sedition law under which Catalonia’s leading separatists were convicted in 2019. (Most European countries have abolished sedition as a crime.)

Sánchez’ term expires in December 2023. If even he, a Socialist who needs Catalan support in Congress, won’t negotiate, what democratic recourse will Catalan nationalists have left?