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A week of violent clashes and unrest gripped Barcelona as the long-running constitutional crisis in Spain came to a head on October 14, when the Spanish Supreme Court pronounced its judgement against Catalan secessionist leaders on trial since February 2019. With proceedings lasting over four months and including around 400 witnesses, the highly anticipated ruling ended one of the most politically charged trials in Spain’s recent history. 

The court sentenced nine separatist leaders to prison terms, finding them guilty of sedition in connection with the unilateral attempt to break away from the Kingdom of Spain, marked by the infamous 1-O referendum organised in 2017. The most severe sentence of thirteen years in prison was reserved for Oriol Junqueras, the former deputy premier of Catalonia and leader of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) party. Other former Catalan ministers received similar terms, close to the maximum time permitted by law, in addition to temporary bans on holding public office. Three others were convicted of disobedience and ordered to pay fines. Four were also declared guilty of misappropriation of public funds.

Much to the chagrin of conservative factions, the court ruled that the defendants’ actions did not amount to rebellion as they were not enough to “impose effective territorial independence and the derogation of the Constitution.” The judgement acknowledged that the referendum and the subsequent declaration of independence were merely symbolic gestures that “never had any practical concreteness” as the secessionist leaders lacked the means to subdue the Spanish state: They were merely geared towards mobilising citizens and pressuring Madrid to enter into negotiations over Catalonia’s status within Spain. As per Spanish law, the secessionist leaders would have faced up to twenty-five years in prison had they been charged for rebellion against the Spanish State.

Several ex-government officials, including the former Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont, continue to evade detention and trial by living in self-imposed exile elsewhere in Europe. The European arrest warrants issued against these leaders were reactivated following the Supreme Court’s ruling. Defence attorneys have announced that they plan to appeal the “severe and unfair” decisions in the Constitutional Tribunal as well as the European Court of Human Rights. 

As the ruling was pronounced, thousands descended upon the city to demonstrate against it, blocking major roads and disrupting train and flight services. Reports of severe police brutality emerged, as security forces struggled to quell the widespread protests and rioting. Madrid’s heavy-handed approach over the past few years has only served to polarise Catalonia and increase mass support for secession. Wide-ranging public support for protests organised by the pro-independence organisation Tsunami Democràtic are testimony to this fact. This is anything but new, some would argue. As the leader of the Basque independence party EH Bildu, Arnaldo Otegi writes in The Guardian: “The verdict against the Catalan pro-independence leadership… the Spanish state is not interested in democracy and will use violence to conceal its undemocratic nature.” 

The Supreme Court’s interpretation of what sedition entails has also raised concerns over the rights to freedom of assembly and protest in the country. Writing in Contexto, Constitutional Law professor Joaquín Urías states that it “leaves out the need for a genuine uprising.” Instead, it describes any given campaign of civil disobedience. This reading, he further argues, is reflective of the Court’s motivation to “protect the sacred territorial unity of Spain.” By conflating the two offences, the Court has overstepped its mandate.* 

The roots of the current crisis can be traced back to the period known as ‘The Transition’ in Spanish history, after the end of the Franco dictatorship. A delicate constitutional compromise was reached in order to resolve tensions between the need for a strong, united Spain and demands for recognition of the distinctiveness of the Catalonia, Basque Country and Galician cultures: The word ‘nations’ was replaced by ‘nationalities’ and the constituent power vested in a ‘united Spanish nation’ in Article 2 of the 1978 Constitution. In line with this, the territorial organisation and distribution of competencies between the Central and provincial governments were also left unstated. These were to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis, to allow for an asymmetrical federation with greater autonomy for the peripheral nations. This inadvertently exposed the process of shaping the terms of the relationship between Madrid and the provinces to considerations of electoral and coalition politics.

The secessionist turn in Catalan politics was triggered after a newly approved Statute of Autonomy for Catalonia was legally challenged by the conservative Partido Popular (PP), and consequently struck down by a Constitutional Court judgement in 2010. The new Statute included references to Catalonia’s historical fact as a distinct nation, granted greater fiscal autonomy to the region, and accorded the Catalan language a preferential position. Since then, elections to the Catalan regional legislature, Parlament de Catalunya, acquired a plebiscitary character. 

At the heart of this protracted crisis lies the question of regional sovereignty and the recognition of a minority nation’s social and cultural rights. Inarguably, it is one that can be resolved through a policy of negotiation and accommodation, much like it has been done in Quebec or Scotland. As Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of the PSOE visited Barcelona in the aftermath of the violent protests on October 21, he was met with signs asking Spain to “sit and talk” with Catalan leaders.

Regrettably, Madrid’s response to the Catalan secessionist bid so far has been representative of a disturbing trend: The propensity for the judicialization of politics by seeking legal resolution for what is a fundamentally political problem: the accommodation of plurinationalism within a polity. As Otegi remarked, Madrid’s line with the Basque independence movement remained that “there was not a political problem in Spain, just a criminal one.” Sanchez maintains that ‘rule of law prevailed’ in the Court’s judgement and refuses to engage with current Catalan premier Quim Torra. As the rest of Europe looks away and both the national parties (PSOE and PP) set to gain by appealing to reactionary nationalistic sentiments in an imminent snap election, it seems unlikely that the Catalan crisis will be curtailed soon. 

*Translated from Spanish