Trials of Catalan leaders may evoke secessionist outrage against Spain

  • 14 Feb 2019

Catalan nationalists, who helped Spain’s socialists form a government, protested against the trials of their leaders, asking Madrid to negotiate their independence referendum. But Madrid flatly denied, opening the possibility of snap elections.

As Catalonia’s separatist leaders are put on trial in Madrid, pro-independence people protest against the Supreme Court in Catalunya Square in Barcelona, Spain on February 12, 2019. ( Albert Gea / Reuters )

As Catalonia’s separatist leaders face trial in Madrid, political uncertainty and public unease have once again settled over the highly industrialised province of Catalonia, one of the richest regions in Spain.

The latest developments could well lead Spain’s minority-led government to hold snap elections after parliament rejected the governing socialist party’s budget yesterday. 

In October 2017, Catalans held an independence referendum, which was considered to be unconstitutional by Madrid, voting overwhelmingly ‘Yes’ for separation from Spain. 

The measure was violently suppressed by Spain's central government security forces and last October, when Catalans wanted to commemorate the first anniversary of the independence bid, security forces once again clashed with the protesters.   

Now the trial of separatists, which began on February 12, marks another milestone in Barcelona’s independence struggle against Madrid, which led to 12 politicians being jailed, including the former regional vice-president Oriol Junqueras. The separatist politicians are accused of various charges from rebellion to sedition and embezzlement of public funds. 

Carlos Lesmes, the president of Spain’s highest court, described the trial as the country’s most important case since Madrid transitioned into a democracy from military dictatorship in late 1970s.  

The trial has also set up a high-level political clash between the country’s socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who is leading a minority government with support from Catalan-originated parties, and the pro-independence Catalan political establishment. 

Former Catalan vice president Oriol Junqueras testifies before judges during the trial of jailed Catalan separatist leaders at the Supreme Court in Madrid, Spain on February 14, 2019.(Reuters)

Sanchez became prime minister last year after the governing right-wing Popular Party’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy lost a confidence vote in parliament, following the revelation of corruption allegations against him. 

But Sanchez, who has sought a reconciliation process with Catalan separatists, opposed by much of the Spanish political structure, has walked a thin line between the anti-secessionist Spanish establishment and pro-independence Catalan political parties. 

Last Sunday, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Madrid to protest any mediation effort between Spanish central government and Catalonia. 

The fateful week, which marked the beginning of the secessionism trial, also featured a parliamentary vote on the Sanchez’s budget. Catalonia’s separatist parties have already conditioned their support for the budget in return to Sanchez’s acceptance of a Catalan independence referendum. 

Sanchez rejected that condition, knowing that the approval of his budget cannot be reconciled with the division of a country, whose majority is against any secession from Spain. 

“This government is not going to accept any kind of blackmail,” said Sanchez’s Finance Minister María Jesús Montero, during budget discussions in parliament on Tuesday, flatly rejecting Catalan independence demands.  

“The right of self-determination for Catalonia will not be on the agenda,” Montero emphasised.  

People gather during a protest called by right-wing opposition parties against Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in Colon square in Madrid, Spain, on February 10, 2019.(Reuters)

Joaquim Torra, Catalonia’s current leader, had still hoped that Sanchez would “have the courage that the moment demands” to hold talks with Catalan nationalists for an independence referendum.

But Sanchez has nothing to satisfy Torra.  

“After seven years of social injustice, the right wing and the independence movement will vote against social budget proposals. Both want the same: a Catalonia in conflict with itself and a Spain in conflict with itself. We are working for a Catalonia in coexistence for a united Spain,” Sanchez wrote on Twitter,signalling no possibility for a referendum for Barcelona. 

With Sanchez’s clear rejection, pro-independence parties voted against the budget, which could not get a pass from parliament, pushing the government towards early elections. 

But some experts think that elections could create the perfect conditions for right-wing gains, as it strongly believes in no negotiations with the pro-independence movement. 

There have been signs that the far-right has already made inroads in Spain, as with other European countries. In Andalusia, where the socialists are historically powerful,the Vox party, a far-right movement, gaineda significant portion of the electorate in December, defending tough measures against migrants and secessionists. By grabbing 12 seats, they are now in the governing coalition. In contrast, Sanchez takes a more immigrant-friendly stance. 

But a right-wing victory might be exactly what some Catalan nationalists want, according to some Catalan politicians. 

“There are two different positions: some believe that if right-wing parties get into government, it will be a wonderful scenario, as such a government would be the perfect adversary,” said Carles Campuzano, an MP from the Catalan European Democratic Party (PdeCAT), which has a pro-independence stance. 

Catalan Regional Parliament speaker Roger Torrent, Catalan Regional President Quim Torra and Catalan politician Josep Rull's wife Meritxell Lluis are seen ahead of a trail of jailed Catalan separatist leaders, outside the Supreme Court in Madrid, Spain, on February 12, 2019.(Reuters)

Catalonia: A booming powerhouse

One of the main drivers of Catalonia’s independence bid is its academics, who established the ‘Wilson Initiative’ in 2012 to promote Catalonian independence on the grounds of building a strong regional economy that meets the requirements of a separate statehood. 

They named their initiative after Woodrow Wilson, the US president during the World War I, because he was a strong advocate of self-determination. Most of the Catalan academics are working for prestigious American universities such as Harvard, MIT and Princeton. 

In 2012, Catalonia was the top regional contributor to Spain’s national GDP, according to the country’s National Statistics Institute. In 2013, the region was also the top benefactor to Spain’s exports. Barcelona’s exports almost doubled compared to Madrid's, the Spanish capital, according to the country’s secretariat of commerce. 

But the economic strength does not guarantee the success of independence showdowns, whose recent trends showed that the current global outlook does not often favour independence bids. Following Barcelona’s bid, no sovereign state was willing to recognise Catalonia as an independent country. Other recent independence referendums have also failed to date. 

Scotland, which is part of the United Kingdom, held an unsuccessful independence referendum in 2014. Iraq’s Kurdish region, led by the former president Masoud Barzani, held a referendum in September 2017, which was also rejected by the Baghdad government.