The Catalan Trials: Explaining Spain’s prisoners’ dilemma

Why We Wrote This

Dealing with the legality of one of Europe’s long-running secessionist movements will come down to how the roots of the divide – and reactions – are framed. We look at the perspectives.

Alvaro Barrientos/AP
Pro-independence supporters wave Catalan flags in San Sebastian, northern Spain, Oct. 1, 2019, two years after a banned independence referendum that shook Spanish politics.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 3 Min. )

Ahead of Catalonia’s independence vote in October 2017, a Spanish court ruled the referendum illegal. When the Catalan government proceeded anyway, a trial was inevitable, says Sofia Perez, a political science professor at Boston University.

Spain’s Supreme Court is set to rule on the country’s “trial of the century” within weeks. The dozen defendants face charges varying from misuse of public funds to rebellion, over their roles in the referendum as politicians and activists. Potential penalties range from a temporary ban on holding public office to a maximum of 25 years in prison.

The separatist saga has polarized Spain’s politics, and the trials have been a lightning-rod issue for separatist sympathizers and a resurgent far-right. Some say the country hasn’t been so divided since the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. 

“One thing it certainly won’t do is to bring people together,” says Gemma Sala, a professor of political science at Grinnell College in Iowa. “There’s a winner, a loser, or no one. Conciliation won’t happen through courts.”

Spain’s Supreme Court is set to rule on the country’s “trial of the century” within weeks, deciding the fate of 12 activists and politicians from Catalonia. The defendants are on trial over their involvement in the region’s Oct. 1, 2017, independence vote, which Madrid considered an act of rebellion.

The separatist saga has polarized Spain’s politics, and the trials have been a lightning-rod issue for separatist sympathizers and a resurgent far-right. Several observers say the country hasn’t been so divided since the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. 

Regardless of the court’s decision, it is almost certain to frustrate one of the two groups. The court and country are caught, as the old Spanish saying goes, between the sword and the wall.

What are the charges? 

Ahead of the 2017 independence vote, Spain’s Constitutional Court ruled the planned referendum illegal. When the Catalan government proceeded anyway, a trial was inevitable, says Sofia Perez, a political science professor at Boston University.

The dozen defendants face charges, varying from misuse of public funds to rebellion, over their role in the referendum. Controversially, some are being held in “preventive detention” and will have spent two years in jail by the time a decision is announced. Potential penalties range from a temporary ban on holding public office to a maximum of 25 years in prison.

Crucial to the Supreme Court’s ruling will be how it frames the independence vote. Protest or coup d’etat? Separatists call it the first and Spanish nationalists the second. To choose between the two, experts say, the judges must decide whether the ensuing violence came from the referendum’s organizers or the state police.

Why do Catalans want to secede? 

Since Spain’s 15th-century union through the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, Catalonia has often chafed at its role in the Spanish state. With a distinct language and culture, it has tried and failed to divorce its Castilian partner multiple times. The region is now home to about 16% of Spain’s population and produces a fifth of the country’s GDP.

Until recently, most Catalan nationalists focused on autonomy – increased ability to self-govern – rather than outright separatism, says Dr. Perez. A shift to secession, she says, comes from myopic policy on both sides.

In 2010, Spain’s constitutional court voided a new Catalan autonomy statute – essentially a regional constitution – that would have increased regional autonomy. The ruling enraged Catalans, sparking large protests and radicalizing many of its politicians. 

Around the same time, Spain’s economy crumbled in the financial crisis, during which unemployment reached 25%. In periods of austerity, many Catalans felt they were propping up Spain’s poorer regions, paying in more than they were getting out. 

Before the referendum, says Dr. Perez, separatism was just a threat meant to win concessions from Madrid. But Madrid and Barcelona eventually settled into a zero-sum game of chicken in which their positions became entrenched. From the start, almost no one wanted the legal battle that the conflict has brought, she says.

“The more radical elements on both sides ... made this situation much worse,” writes Sebastián Royo, a professor at Boston’s Suffolk University, in an email. “They fed each other.”

Still, even at the independence movement’s peak in October 2017, just under half of Catalans supported secession, according to polls from the Catalan government. A poll in July indicated that number had fallen to around 44% as the separatist movement loses momentum and fractures. 

What will a ruling mean for Catalonia and Spain?

Spain has other regions that have sought independence before – most notably the Basque Country. Catalonia seems the least content at the moment, but Madrid isn’t taking any chances. Charging secessionist leaders is one way of keeping other independence movements in check, says Gemma Sala, a professor of political science at Grinnell College in Iowa.

Decisions deemed too harsh from Spain’s top court may invigorate the faltering separatists. Softer verdicts could energize Spanish nationalists, eager to call the state too cavalier. Whether outcry will come from Madrid or Barcelona, there is little chance everyone walks away happy. 

“One thing it certainly won’t do is to bring people together,” says Dr. Sala. “There’s a winner, a loser, or no one. Conciliation won’t happen through courts.”

Give us your feedback

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

 
of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.