Tensions in Catalonia have reached a peak over the past two weeks, following the jailing of nine pro-Catalan independence leaders. Spain’s Supreme Court handed down the decision on Monday, October 14, 2019, sentencing the leaders to prison time ranging from nine to 13 years. Spain had the leaders arrested for their involvement in a referendum held almost two years ago, on October 1, 2019, after Madrid deemed the referendum illegal.
The referendum was on Catalonia, which is currently a Spanish autonomous community, and its independence from Spain, the official question posed being, “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?” The results of the poll were devastating for Spain, who opposed Catalan independence, as 90% of the populace voted for a split, according to CNN. Even with the majority voting for independence, the Washington Post reports that low turnout and a lack of observers should cast doubt over the legitimacy of the referendum.
On top of that, as The Guardian finds, pro-independence parties have never won the majority of the vote in regional elections, and polls have shown that region is split evenly on the question of independence. This nearly 50/50 split in support has led to independence becoming the defining issue in Catalan politics, and its centrality to the political sphere only makes it that much more tense of a problem amongst the public.
Now, thrown back into the center of the Spanish political spotlight over two years after the referendum, the issue of independence has led to the eruption of political violence. Violence manifests itself in conflicts between protestors and police.
In 2017, the clash leftover 1,000 civilians injured, according to Catalan’s department of health. Now, as riots unfold, the count rises, as police wounded 61 civilians in a protest on Wednesday, October 16, as reported by CNN. More recently, on October 26, Reuters found that four protestors were injured, and a photographer was hospitalized after being shot in the stomach with a rubber bullet. Not all of this violence comes on the part of the police, as footage shows protestors throwing bottles, stones, flares, and rubber balls at officers, at least during the protest on the 16th. The point of this is not to assign blame for the violence. This kind of “blame game” has been played ever since the protests in 2017, with both sides pointing fingers at one another, attempting to deflect attention from their failings. The evidence makes it clear that violence has been a strategy both sides, even implicitly endorsed by either endorsing protests that utilize it or by ordering police to go break up demonstrations.
Instead of playing the blame game, both sides should recognize their past mistakes. Admission of errors isn’t an infeasible first step, as Spain has made clear they’re capable of admitting their missteps by apologizing for police violence in 2017. After these acknowledgments, both parties should agree and commit to the national dialogue called for by many Catalan leaders.
The critical step for Spain would be releasing imprisoned leaders, which would quell public dissent, and then agreeing to the dialogue, and Spain has good reasons to commit to a discussion. The Catalan crisis is devastating for their image in the international sphere, and agreeing to hold a dialogue could serve as a “soft power” boost for Spain. Additionally, it would save them the trouble of expending state resources to deal with protests. Finally, and most importantly, agreeing to the dialogue could save thousands from injury, or even death, during a clash between protestors and police, because support a discussion would help end protests, as Catalan regional president Quim Torra has stated.
Spain, and specifically the Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, has one main issue with this, and its the fact he believes Catalan independence is illegal. But, this isn’t an impossible barrier to overcome, as Sanchez only opposes unilateral secession, not a negotiated secession. Additionally, he has publicly endorsed the idea of negotiations and reducing financial controls on Catalan. The only condition of those negotiations would be pro-independence leaders renouncing the violence protestors have initiated. And, since Spain is willing to issue official apologies, it is likely they can draw out reciprocal apologies from Catalan pro-independence leaders. Thus, a dialogue could likely resolve the issue of Catalan independence, and even if it doesn’t meet that threshold, it will halt police violence against civilians.