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Madrid’s heavy handed attempts to jail Catalan independence leaders surrender its moral authority to an undeserving cause
Since October of last year, the Spanish government has consistently handled the thorny issue of Catalonian separatism with recklessness, heavy handedness and an apparent desire to make a difficult situation far worse. Late last week, a judge in Spain’s supreme court issued international arrest warrants for six fugitive Catalan leaders who have been charged with rebellion. Yesterday, the erstwhile Catalan president Carles Puigdemont was arrested in Germany. If he is extradited, as seems likely, he could face up to 30 years in prison.
Mr Puigdemont fled Spain in October after declaring Catalan independence. During the referendum that narrowly preceded this somewhat grandiose act, Spanish riot police were deployed, seizing ballot boxes and shooting Catalans of all ages with rubber bullets. Hundreds were hospitalised. That referendum had been illegal under the Spanish constitution, and a court had ordered police to prevent it. The defence of Spanish unity, even so, was not well served by images of dissenters under attack at the polls, and nor by what happened next. Within days, 13 Catalan politicians were either in jail, on bail, or in exile. The Catalan government was sacked and direct rule from Madrid was imposed. Mr Puigdemont wound up in Belgium. A regional election in December could have kick-started a process of reconciliation. Instead, a small majority for pro-independence parties, coupled with a pro-Spanish party being the single largest force led to further deadlock. Later that month, Judge Pablo Llarena of the Spanish supreme court withdrew international arrest warrants for the renegade former president and four of his colleagues.
On Friday, they were reactivated, surprising Mr Puigdemont who was in Helsinki, visiting the Finnish parliament. He is now detained in Germany. Having hoped to be reinstated into office after December’s elections, Mr Puigdemont had already found himself barred by a court from being invested as president in absentia. In his place, he appointed Jordi Sànchez, a fellow independence leader, only for the court to rule that Mr Sànchez, who was already in custody, could not leave prison for investiture either. Jordi Turull, formerly Mr Puigdemont’s chief of staff, emerged as the next likely candidate earlier this month. On Friday, he was arrested.
The fact that all these decisions have been made by judges rather than politicians makes Madrid’s plan to frustrate separatists into stasis no less obvious. Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, has taken no real steps to comprehend why such a significant proportion of Catalans hope for independence. Instead he has adopted a pose of legalistic outrage, while Spanish police and courts have pursued separatist figures with gusto. Twice, police have searched the private jet of Pep Guardiola, the Spanish manager of Manchester City, apparently in fear that it was being used to smuggle Mr Puigdemont back into the country. Madrid has an existential fear of secessionism, not just in Catalonia but also of the Basques. This is no excuse, however, for treating a peaceful, slightly shambolic independence movement as though it were a dangerous rebel army.
Catalonian independence is probably a bad idea, certainly against the interests of the wider Spanish nation and very probably against the interests even of the region itself. In an atmosphere of greater calm and less brinkmanship, it is perfectly possible that a majority would shy away from the idea of independence in return for mild concessions toward self-governance and a return to stability. In seeking to portray strength, Mr Rajoy’s government instead looks panicky. Worse, it is surrendering moral authority to a flippant political movement that more often than not does not deserve it. Madrid needs to start speaking to its opponents and stop seeking to put them in jail.