Sánchez Cleans Up Mess Conservatives Made in Catalonia

The right used an antiquated sedition law to persecute Catalan separatists.

Pedro Sánchez
Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez chairs a meeting of Socialist Workers’ Party lawmakers in Madrid, June 1 (PSOE/Eva Ercolanese)

Spain’s ruling left-wing parties have abolished the crimes for which Catalonia’s independence leaders were imprisoned — and the right has gone berserk. Conservative deputies called the penal reforms an “assault on democracy”. The far right called Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez a “traitor”. (They do so frequently.)

When the reforms came to a vote in Congress, members of the conservative People’s Party (PP) sat on their hands. The center-right Citizens and far-right Vox (Voice) walked out in protest. So much for their commitment to democracy.

Indeed, it was the PP’s disinterest in Catalan democracy that culminated in the imprisonment of half the Catalan government and the suspension of Catalan home rule. Sánchez is doing little more than clean up the mess they made.

Assault on democracy

After the last Socialist prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, negotiated an autonomy statute with Catalonia in 2006, his conservative successor, Mariano Rajoy, delayed the devolution of powers.

When a majority of Catalans told pollsters they would rather break away from Spain than live under Rajoy’s austerity government, the PP leader refused to even meet with Catalan leaders, much less discuss giving the region more autonomy.

80 percent of Catalans wanted a referendum on independence. The PP refused. It appealed to the Constitutional Court, whose PP-appointed majority agreed a referendum would be illegal.

When Catalans voted anyway, Rajoy sent in riot police to beat up voters and break up polling places. He revoked Catalonia’s self-government for the first time in Spain’s democratic history and tried to arrest the entire Catalan cabinet for disobedience. Several of its members, including regional president Carles Puigdemont, fled the country.

The leaders who remained were jailed and sentenced to between nine and thirteen years in prison for sedition and misuse of public funds.

The crimes Sánchez would change

It are those crimes Sánchez and his left-wing coalition partner Podemos (We Can) would change.

Sedition, which carries a maximum prison sentence of fifteen years, would be replaced with the crime of “aggravated public disorder”. For violence, threats, obstructing roads and occupying buildings, perpetrators could be sentenced to three years in prison. If the disorder is at a larger scale, and has the intent to “affect public order,” the maximum sentence would be five years.

Most European countries have abolished sedition as a crime, because it can be (ab)used to criminalize dissent. Amnesty International and the Council of Europe have urged Spain to do the same.

The maximum sentence for misuse of public funds would be reduced from six years to four, and only apply if money is misappropriated for personal gain. Not, as was the case in Catalonia, to fund a referendum against the Spanish government’s will.

The reforms were approved by the Congress of Deputies this week. If the Senate approves them as well, Puigdemont and the other former Catalan ministers who live in self-imposed exile may finally be able to return.

Penal reforms are second concession

The penal reforms are the second major concession Sánchez has made to Catalan parties, whose support he needs for a majority in Congress.

In 2021, he pardoned the nine separatist leaders who were convicted in 2019.

He has also restored official dialogue with the government of Catalonia, although ministers have only met three times in as many years and the talks have yet to produce any concrete outcomes.

How to keep Catalonia in Spain

Moving out of crisis mode, and securing Catalonia’s place in Spain, would require:

  • Completing the devolution Catalonia was promised in 2006

The Statute of Autonomy gives Catalonia exclusive control over labor inspections, maritime rescue and waterway management. Those powers have yet to be devolved. The only competency Sánchez has given Catalonia is the right to award university scholarships. (And no, that’s not a big deal in Spain either.)

  • Sorting out overlapping competencies, for example in housing.

Where competencies overlap, Spanish courts tend to give preference to national law. For example, by overturning Catalan rent control, which the Constitutional Court did in March.

The dialogue tables are meant to sort out such overlaps, but for merely meeting with Catalans Sánchez was greeted by 45,000 demonstrators in Madrid.

  • Giving Catalonia fiscal autonomy.

The Basques collect their own taxes and send a share to Madrid. Catalonia only collects its own social-security tax, and even that money a PP government couldn’t let alone: Rajoy forced Catalonia to cut the unemployment benefits it finances in 2012.

Every year, Catalonia pays more into the Spanish treasury than it takes out. Not without reason: Catalonia is the richest region of Spain after Madrid. But conservative governments have often been slow to send money back. Investments in Catalan railways — infrastructure is another “shared” responsibility — have consistently fallen short. Infrastructure in Madrid, by contrast, receives far more investment from the central government than the capital region’s contribution to the national economy would seem to justify.

In 2021, the central government spent just 35 percent of its budget for Catalonia: €740 million out of €2 billion. Madrid was allocated €1.3 billion in national funds yet somehow received €2.1 billion.

  • Recognizing Catalan self-determination.

Spain’s Constitutional Court notoriously struck Catalonia’s description as a “nation” from the autonomy statute in 2010. For obvious reasons: a nation would be entitled to self-determination, including the right to hold a referendum on independence.

Separation is the nightmare of Spanish nationalists. Without Catalonia, which is about one-fifth of its economy and one-sixth of its population, Spain would be reduced to the ranks of the Netherlands.

Meeting Catalan demands is unpopular

Sánchez is unlikely to go that far. He knows even the right of his own Socialist Party is opposed to giving Catalans more power.

Half of Spaniards outside Catalonia believe the region has too much self-government. 38 percent would even weaken or revoke home rule.

Polls put Sánchez in second place for the next election with 24 to 28 percent support. Podemos is down too, hovering just north of 10 percent. The two parties got 41 percent in 2019.

The PP has climbed from 21 to 28-31 percent at the expense of the Citizens. Support for Vox is stable around 15 percent.