It has been two years since Catalonia’s failed independence push but the wounds from that ill-advised adventure continue to fester. On Monday, Spain’s Supreme Court passed tough sentences against politicians and activists behind the independence referendum held on October 1 2017 in contravention of the Spanish constitution. Nine were found guilty of sedition and four of them were also convicted of misusing public funds. They were jailed for between nine and 13 years, triggering protests in Catalonia as independence supporters blocked roads and railways and clashed with police at Barcelona’s airport.
The trial was the most important since Spain’s return to democracy in the late 1970s. It took place against the backdrop of a highly-charged general election in April. The verdict fell less than four weeks before Spaniards return to the polls on November 10 to break the parliamentary logjam that has held since then. That is not to say that the trial itself was political.
A democracy that respects the rule of law is required in the public interest to hold to account anyone who undertakes an illegal act. Spain is no exception. There is little reason to believe that the trial in the Supreme Court was anything other than a fair process. The judges dismissed charges of rebellion — demanded by the chief prosecutor and cheerleaders on the Spanish nationalist right — that could have carried a jail term of up to 25 years.
Rebellion did not stack up, they said, because the secessionists knew their actions would not succeed and were simply a “device” to put pressure on the government to agree to a formal plebiscite. If so, that makes it harder to justify the inordinately long sentences for the crime of sedition that the court handed down, even if this is what the law mandates. The sentences will almost certainly be appealed in Spain’s constitutional court and then the European Court of Human Rights. The longer it is strung out in the courts, the longer it will take to kick-start a political dialogue that could lead to a lasting solution — one that can reconcile Catalan demands for self-government with Spaniards’ adherence to national unity.
Many Spaniards, horrified by the separatists’ disregard for the constitution, and the rights of half of Catalonia opposed to independence, will applaud the verdict. Many Catalans regard their former leaders as political prisoners and martyrs to the cause. The risk is that these sentences will radicalise secessionist opinion and amplify the Spanish nationalist backlash against it.
The anger on both sides of the Catalan divide has fed twin processes of political fragmentation and polarisation. These have discouraged compromise and collaboration, and made it harder to form a stable national government. Catalan nationalist parties were once political kingmakers in Madrid. Now no one will deal with them. Leftwing and rightwing blocs cannot command a majority on their own, but distrust over the Catalan question has prevented them from working together. Next month’s general election will be the fourth in four years.
Before the Supreme Court verdict, Spain’s mainstream parties had begun to show signs of moderation. Less threatened by the far-right, the conservative People’s party no longer promises to impose immediate direct rule on Catalonia. The fiercely anti-Catalan nationalist Ciudadanos is now open to supporting the Socialists of prime minister Pedro Sánchez, who has espoused engagement and conciliation with Catalan leaders. It would be a tragedy if Mr Sánchez, assuming he is re-elected, was deterred from such a course.