Madrid seeks to cool Catalan crisis by moving jailed leaders closer to home

Pedro Sánchez tries to reduce negative view of capital held by independence movements

The new Spanish government is allowing jailed Catalan independence leaders to be moved to prisons in their home region as part of a strategy aimed at calming tensions caused by the country’s territorial crisis.

Spain's interior ministry has said that nine jailed separatist politicians and rank-and-file leaders will start to be moved in the next few days from the Madrid prisons where they are being held. Among those in jail are former Catalan deputy president Oriol Junqueras, and Jordi Turull, who was a candidate for Catalan president earlier this year.

Those held are awaiting trial for charges that include sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds for their role in last October’s outlawed independence referendum and the events surrounding it.

A new, Socialist government has been in power for a month, after ousting corruption-plagued conservative Mariano Rajoy with a no-confidence vote. The prime minister, Pedro Sánchez (46), has appeared more willing to use his political influence to tackle the Catalan issue than Rajoy, who took a rigidly legalistic approach.



“It’s clear that what [Sánchez] wants to do is use all the means at his disposal to reduce the tensions,” said Fernando Vallespín, a sociologist at Madrid’s Autonomous University. “This government wants to show that it’s very different to the last one.”

Sánchez has already put daylight between himself and his predecessor on the issue of migration. Soon after taking office, he stepped into the EU spotlight by offering to take in the Aquarius, a vessel carrying more than 600 migrants that Italy and Malta had turned away. It was difficult to imagine Rajoy making such a bold gesture, or, like Sánchez, appointing a cabinet dominated by women.

Sánchez now hopes to challenge the Catalan independence movement’s negative portrayal of Madrid. Separatists consistently accused the Rajoy government of refusing to engage in dialogue, being in cahoots with a politicised justice system and of being part of a repressive state that was still in thrall to the values of the Franco dictatorship.

‘Fascist’ narrative

"That narrative is being put into question," says Vallespín, who adds that Sánchez was attempting to show that "this is not the black Spain, the fascist Spain that they have claimed it to be".

Sánchez has also agreed to meet Catalonia's secessionist president, Quim Torra, in Madrid on July 9th. Although it may well not produce much in terms of concrete accords or policy, that date will be the first meeting between a Spanish prime minister and a Catalan regional leader since January 2017.

As well as sanctioning the movement of Catalan prisoners, Sánchez’s government has backed allowing imprisoned members of terrorist group Eta to be moved to jails in or near their native Basque Country or Navarre. Most Eta prisoners are held hundreds of kilometres from their families, as part of a deliberate and long-standing policy.

Deeply divided

In defending his decision, which terrorism victims’ groups have attacked, Sánchez said he intended to “normalise coexistence in the Basque Country”, which also appears to be his aim in a deeply divided Catalonia.

However, while the movement of Catalan and Basque prisoners is seen as part of a bid by Sánchez to soften the image of the Spanish government and state, it is also due to political necessity. In order to win the no-confidence vote against Rajoy and become prime minister himself, Sánchez needed the support of nationalist parties from both northern regions.

Despite the initiatives he is taking, it would be an exaggeration to say that the frost between Madrid and Barcelona is melting.

Political prisoners

"We weren't asking for the movement of the prisoners; what we have been calling for is that these political prisoners should be freed altogether," Gabriel Rufían, parliamentary spokesman for the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), told The Irish Times.

“We don’t have high hopes,” he said of the new administration. “That’s not because we’ve got it in for [Sánchez] but simply because we have a good memory.”

Rufián listed a litany of grievances against Sánchez’s Socialist Party, including the fact that last October it voted in the senate in favour of introducing direct rule in Catalonia, which was only recently lifted.

Torra, the Catalan president, seems similarly unimpressed. Shortly before becoming prime minister, Sánchez had repeatedly accused him of being a “supremacist”, comparing his nationalist beliefs to those of Marine Le Pen in France.

On Wednesday, Torra and others walked out of a cultural event organised by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington while the Spanish ambassador, Pedro Morenés, was giving a speech. Torra later alleged that the ambassador, who was appointed by the previous Spanish government, had been "falsifying the history of what is happening in Catalonia".

It could be some time before both sides can agree on what is happening there, despite Sánchez’s gestures.