Since the failed Catalan independence movement of October 2017, Spain has been seething with political tension. Twelve separatists leaders, now standing trial in Madrid, stand at the nexus of a political battle that stretches back decades. As the defendants appeared before the Spanish Supreme Court, the division that has formed a precarious fault line in Spain’s political terrain once again became evident as pro- and anti-separatist demonstrators, flanked by hundreds of police officers, congregated outside the court.
The charges levied against the twelve leaders include rebellion, sedition, and misuse of public funds. If convicted, the defendants face up to 25 years in jail. Though the long-awaited trial, which is expected to last three months, has only just commenced, it has already been the subject of biting criticism. According to CNN, Catalan separatists have denounced the politically-charged trial as a ‘farce,’ asserting that the “outcome for the 12 defendants has been pre-determined.” Many of the defendants’ supporters seem to share these sentiments. According to Al Jazeera, advocates believe the defendants are political prisoners. The Spanish government responded that the defendants are being judged strictly according to the rule of law.
The Catalan independence movement and the current trial have rattled the country deeply, precipitating Spain’s worst political crisis since a failed coup in 1981. Ended by an intervention by King Juan Carlos, the attempted coup occurred just three years after the current constitution – which bans any Spanish region from seceding – was approved to complete the democratic transition that followed dictator Francisco Franco’s death in 1975. The 1981 attempt to dismantle the Spanish state was alluded to by a small group of anti-separatist demonstrators gathered outside the Supreme Court, who, according to CBC, shouted “Golpista” or “coup plotter.”
While the Catalan separatist movement has been decried as violent and anti-government, Al Jazeera reported that Andreu Van den Eyndehe, a lawyer defending two of the accused, said in his opening remarks to the trial that the defendants had the right to seek independence for their region, and that “it [self-determination] is a synonym of peace, not of war.” These statements echo those made by Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont. According to Al Jazeera, Puigdemont said the trial was a “stress test for Spanish democracy,” and that democracies across the globe should be inspired “by the Catalan struggle for democracy.”
Puigdemont’s pivotal role in the independence movement forced him to flee Spain with several other regional officials. He arrived in Brussels on October 31, 2017. He was later arrested in Germany but avoided extradition after a German court refused to send him back to Spain to face a rebellion charge. Though Puigdemont’s time in exile continues to stretch on, he has, according to Al Jazeera, expressed hope that the courts will absolve those on trial.
While separatists continue to look towards a future of independence, socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has declined to discuss any move towards Catalan independence. Despite his silence, which has troubled nationalist lawmakers from Catalonia, Sanchez has, according to CBC, “adopted a more conciliatory stance toward the secessionist movement than the conservative government that preceded him, and tried to establish dialogue.”
But so long as Sanchez refuses to entertain discussions pertaining to Catalan independence, Catalan lawmakers will block his budget bill. As the Socialist party holds not even a quarter of seats in the lower parliamentary house, the absence of Catalan support for the budget has killed the government’s spending bill and prompted Sanchez to call an early election for April 28.
The failure to pass the national spending bill is indicative not only of the power Catalan leverages over Spain but the erosion of governmental control. According to the Washington Post, Catalonia’s regional government spokeswoman, Elsa Artadi, said, “Spain will be ungovernable as long as it doesn’t confront the Catalan problem.” Whether or not the defendants are convicted, the ‘Catalan problem’ will not be resolved any time soon, as separatists continue to struggle for independence.