The police vans emerged from the underground car park with blue lights flashing, and sped away into the Madrid dusk. Inside were nine former Catalan ministers and independence leaders, heading for their first night in a Spanish prison cell.
For all but one of them, it was likely to be the first night of many. Santi Vila, the former business minister, was released after posting bail. Unless the ruling is reversed, the others will remain in detention until their trial for rebellion, sedition and embezzlement.
The arrests on Thursday offered a high-drama coda to a high-drama week that started with a defiant declaration of independence in the Catalan regional parliament and ended with the entire Catalan leadership in jail or on the run.
Carles Puigdemont, the former Catalan president who fled to Brussels with some ministers on Monday, continues to hold out in the Belgian capital, and has vowed to fight any European arrest warrant Spanish judges may issue.
In legal terms, the separatist defeat is complete. Both the Catalan government and pro-secession social movements have lost their leaders. In political terms, however, the crackdown looks set to give the independence movement new momentum and new focus. With a regional election looming in December, the secessionist camp has been handed a powerful campaign theme – as well as a strong incentive to re-establish the frayed unity within its ranks.
“This is likely to consolidate the unity of the sovereigntist [pro-secession] camp at a time when that unity was showing signs of deteriorating,” said José Fernández-Albertos, a political analyst at Spain’s CSIC research centre. The detentions, he added, made it “increasingly costly for moderates to distance themselves from hardcore independence supporters”.
Shot in the arm
After days of disarray and confusion, separatist groups and leaders on Thursday called a fresh series of protests, which are due to culminate in a mass demonstration on Sunday next week.
Hours after the court decision was announced in Madrid, protesters filled streets and squares across the prosperous northern region to demand the release of the ex-ministers. From Brussels, Puigdemont denounced the arrests as “ferocious repression”, and referred to himself as the “legitimate president of the [Catalan] government”.
If the arrests on Thursday offered a shot in the arm for the independence movement, it was one the separatists badly needed after a disastrous few days. Barely a week after thousands of secessionists squeezed into Barcelona's Plaça San Jaume to celebrate freedom from Spain, the independence movement was flailing, the euphoria gone.
Spain formally took control of the Catalan regional government on Monday, a move that many separatists thought would be met with resistance across the region. Instead, Catalonia's 200,000 civil servants showed up at work like any other day and r Puigdemont fled to Brussels via Marseille. Many colleagues back in Barcelona were left in the dark about his plans, heightening the sense of chaos.
Aleix Rosa was one of many who stood ready to take to the streets to defend the new republic. The waiter envisaged joining forces with other pro-independence activists to surround government buildings and protect Catalonia’s ministers from Spanish police.
But there was nobody to tell him where to go, he says, no co-ordination from the usual channels that had for weeks been promising a “Catalan Spring” to resist Spanish rule. “Everyone had gone silent,” he said. As Rosa was waiting for instructions that never came, Catalan institutions quickly deferred to Spanish government authority in a way that officials in Madrid could barely have imagined.
Finally, in a tacit admission that Mariano Rajoy, Spain's prime minister, was calling the shots, Catalonia's two main separatist parties agreed to take part in a snap regional election that Rajoy called for December 21st.
“I feel a bit let down,” said Rosa before the Thursday arrests. “All this talk of a new republic and in the end we were not willing to defend it.”
Liz Castro, a pro-independence activist and former figure in the ANC, a separatist group, said: "People are hungry for information and instructions . . . It would have been a good week for us to have been out on the streets."
Mireia Boya, an official with the far-left pro-independence CUP, lamented that they were simply underprepared.
The jailing of the former Catalan government ministers offers the independence movement at least a chance to regroup and rejuvenate. Even in Madrid, there is concern that the Spanish courts could end up “making them martyrs”, as one official from the governing Popular party put it.
Officials on both sides note that some polls show a shift in Catalan public opinion in favour of independence, a potentially ominous sign for Madrid ahead of next month’s ballot. Rajoy and his supporters are hoping anti-independence parties win a solid majority on December 21st, and wrest control of the regional government from separatists.
But an official Catalan government poll published on Tuesday showed 48.7 per cent of Catalans believe the region should be independent, up from 41.1 per cent in June, and the highest since December 2014.
Albert Puig, an adviser to Oriol Junqueras, the ex-Catalan deputy leader, said creating a republic was never going to be "low-cost, easy and quick".– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017