In Catalonia, this is definitely not a summer of love. No fewer than 12 of its former government officials and pro-independence activists will spend an anxious few months awaiting the judgement of the Spanish legal system, after being tried for rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds. If convicted, their sentences could be as long as 30 years.
Tension is high in this autonomous region of Spain, as seven Spanish judges mull over their decisions on the 12 accused, at the conclusion of a trial that lasted four months and had 422 witnesses give evidence. The decision may prove pivotal and there could, of course, be unrest on the streets of Catalonia if the accused are found guilty and given lengthy prison sentences.
“I think those imprisoned will almost certainly be convicted for disobedience and misuse of public funds,” Dr Andrew Dowling, a contemporary historian who specialises in Hispanic studies at the University of Cardiff tells InsideOver. “The rebellion charge has not been proved and no neutral observer thinks it has. However, this does not mean that some might not still be convicted of rebellion.”
The whole affair starts with a referendum on October 1, 2017. The then President of the Government of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, and his administration – very much against the wishes of Spain – held their own referendum on independence for Catalonia. Most of those opposed to the separatist agenda boycotted the vote, resulting in a poor turn out of only 43 per cent. Of those who did participate, 92.01 per cent voted for self determination, while 7.99 per cent said no.
Some suggested that the chosen date of October 1, 2017, was deliberately selected to coincide with the centenary of the Bolshevik revolution. Charles Moore, writing in The Spectator, a right wing British journal, described it as ‘Ten days that fooled the world’.
Despite the low turn out, Carles Puigdemont pushed ahead and unilaterally declared independence from Spain on October 27, 2017. The Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy acted quickly to invoke Article 155, suspending the parliament of the autonomous region and taking direct control of Catalonia. Subsequently, the Spanish Attorney General announced that criminal proceedings were to be set in motion. The leading players in the referendum and resulting UDI were charged with rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds.
On October 30, parliamentary speaker Carme Forcadell (herself later sent for trial) called off a meeting scheduled for the next day, while Puigdemont and five of his cabinet – Dolors Bassa, Meritxell Borras, Antoni Comin, Joaquim Forn and Meritxell Serret – left for exile to avoid criminal prosecution. Spanish media reported that they had driven to Marseille, France, before taking a plane to Brussels, Belgium. Bassa, Borras and Forn subsequently returned and were arrested on arrival, along with nine former government officials and activists put on trial.
The trial has now concluded, and the 12 defendants will now spend an anxious summer awaiting the decision of the Spanish judges and their own personal fate – they could face as long as 30 years in jail. But how might these decisions influence future demands for a separate state?
“Catalan independence has been stuck for some time,” Dr Dowling observed. “There is little sign of it growing beyond the results of 2015/2017 [when] it obtained 48 per cent of votes in the regional election. I don’t think a harsh sentence will change that dynamic much at all, as most Catalans have a firm view now of whether they want independence or not. The Catalan independence movement is split between pragmatists and hard-liners, and a harsh decision will make it easier for the hard-line position to be dominant in the movement. However, even this sector has little real capacity for anything that could be termed a revolt.”
In a twist to developments, Puigdemont and Comin, both exiled in Belgium, were elected to the European parliament in their absence, while Oriol Junqueras, held in prison awaiting sentencing was also elected an MEP. Despite protests, the Spanish government have prevented the three from taking their seats in the EU by withholding accreditation.
On the day of investiture, a reported 10,000 protestors turned up in Strasbourg to demand recognition for the elected Puigdemont, Comin and Junqueras, but without the nod from Madrid, they remain blocked from taking their seats.
It is difficult to see where Catalonia goes from here. Of course a great deal will depend on the outcome of the trial and verdicts handed down to the accused. Despite Dr Dowlings reservations, there is always the chance that unduly harsh sentencing may drive some into the pro-independence camp and may, subsequently, alter the internal Catalan dynamic. An increased vigilance and resentment of those who want to side with Spain from those who want a separate state, and an increased paranoia among those who are in favour of staying part of the Spanish state.
Meanwhile, Carles Puigdemont and Antonin Comin, both now elected members of the European parliament remain in exile in Belgium. Hanging oddly in a weird sort of exiled limbo.
Prevented from taking their seats in Europe by Madrid, they have been invited to return to the Spanish capital to be accredited so that they can have their position in the European parliament validated. But both know that any return will result in arrest and, potentially, a lengthy prison sentences.
The next move in this extraordinary game of political chess belongs to Spain, when its legal representatives will decide what happens to 12 Catalan pro-independence activists at the end of summer.