The Guardian view on Catalonia’s jailed separatists: time for magnanimity | Editorial

Madrid’s Plaza de Colón is home to the largest Spanish flag in the world, making it a natural focal point for demonstrations of rightwing patriotic fervour, particularly on matters related to Catalonia. On Sunday, it was packed again. Thousands of protesters made their feelings clear following reports that Spain’s socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, is about to pardon the 12 Catalan politicians who were convicted over their roles in the illegal independence referendum of 2017.

The imprisonment of leading separatists such as Oriol Junqueras, the president of the Republican Left of Catalonia party (ERC), was a draconian response to an episode of foolhardy brinkmanship by the pro-independence movement. The jail sentences handed out to Mr Junqueras and eight other separatist leaders two years ago ranged from nine to 13 years. But a majority of Spaniards are in no mood for showing clemency. The Plaza de Colón demonstration may have been attended by Spain’s three main rightwing parties, but a recent poll found that fully 61% of respondents, and 53% of socialist voters, opposed the idea of pardons. Fewer than 30% were in favour. The failure of the jailed politicians to express any regret for their actions has hardened public opinion and was not lost on the judges of the Spanish supreme court, which has stated that issuing pardons would be “unacceptable”.

Mr Sánchez will thus be taking a considerable political risk if, as still seems likely, he decides that the time has come for a reconciliation process to begin. A week ago, he made that argument eloquently, saying that “Spanish society needs to move from a bad past to a better future – and that will require magnanimity”. In May, he told Spanish MPs: “There is a time for punishment and a time for concord.” Within the Catalan independence movement, there are also encouraging signs that the maximalist posturing of recent years is giving way to a new realism. In a newspaper article, Mr Junqueras has admitted that the separatist leaders had made mistakes and a unilateral approach to gaining independence was no longer “viable”.

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Mr Sánchez’s critics have portrayed him as acting out of cynical self-interest, given his minority government’s dependence on the support of the ERC. But it is in the interests of Spain that the Catalan question is detoxified and a less confrontational future mapped out. That future will almost certainly not include an offer from Madrid of a constitutionally legitimate referendum. But it could take the form of revisiting aspects of constitutional autonomy which were controversially withdrawn in 2010. Catalonia’s separatist movements badly overreached in 2017, combining hubris with reckless opportunism. Madrid’s excessive, authoritarian response, led by the conservative prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, and the judges of the supreme court, made matters far worse. Four years on, Mr Sánchez is right to see pardons as a necessary step towards ensuring that there is never a repeat of that corrosive sequence of events.


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