It has been a little over a year since the Catalan referendum on independence passed and a week short of a year since Catalonia’s elected leaders signed a declaration of independence to break away from Spain. As expected, no country recognized the declaration. It was always clear that Catalonia could not break away without at least tacit approval from Spain. The autonomous territory does not have anything close to the military capacity to challenge Spain, nor is there a desire to bring violence into the issue.
Spain was not having it. Immediately after Catalonia declared independence, Spanish senators approved measures to limit the autonomy that Catalonia was guaranteed before the referendum and imposed direct rule over the region. This lasted for more than seven months until June. The Catalan regional government still exists, and it is still led by separatists. Yet, the leadership that instituted the referendum and tried to implement its result has been punished by Spain. The former president of the region, Carles Puigdemont, was forced out of office and has been living in self-imposed exile in Belgium in order to avoid arrest.
Many others did not flee and have been in jail ever since. Most of the leaders who sought to implement the outcome of a free and fair referendum are still imprisoned. The Spanish state, democratic and European as it is, has no tolerance for the Catalans’ right to self-determination. These political prisoners have been held for almost a year now for committing crimes against the state: wishing to peacefully secede from Spain as voted on in a democratic referendum. As the Canadian Supreme Court held in 1998 in regard to Quebec’s secessionist movement, a democratic country must take seriously and negotiate with the will of a people within the country even if there is no right to secession in the constitution or the constitution outlaws any threats to the unity of the state (which the Spanish constitution does stipulate).
This problem cannot simmer forever. Spain must release Catalan political prisoners and handle the issue more democratically. If it chooses to continue this push to block out the independence movement, it will simply be fueling the fire. It will be humiliated in the European Court of Human Rights if the cases of these jailed politicians make it to the high court. As Spain imposes direct rule or jails elected Catalan leaders, more and more Catalans recognize the issues of the Spanish state. The separatists are still in power. It is virtually assured that another referendum will happen — if not next year, the year after. Dodging the issue does no good; suppression is no solution. As long as Spain does not tackle the question of Catalonia directly and democratically, it will continue to muddle Spanish political discourse, diverting attention from the other extremely important issues Spain faces — perhaps most critically its 33.8 percent youth unemployment rate, second only to Greece in the EU, that leaves young people poor and hopeless.
Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is willing to talk, but he doesn’t have a strong political mandate. Yet waiting for the next election might be too late.