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Pardons for Catalan separatists: a change from inertia

The move holds the potential to shift a dynamic that’s been highly detrimental to Catalonia and to the whole of Spain

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on Tuesday.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on Tuesday.Jaime Villanueva / EL PAÍS

The Spanish government on Tuesday approved pardons for Catalan separatist leaders who were convicted of subversive acts committed in 2017. The measure is a political act that is contemplated by the constitutional framework, and it does not change the guilty verdicts themselves but rather commutes the prison sentences associated with them. The clemency has been justified using the legal criteria of being in the public interest, and with the goal of improving frayed social relations in Catalan society. Its beneficiaries will remain barred from holding public office and could have their pardons reversed if they commit new crimes. It is a momentous and controversial decision and there are valid arguments against it. Yet, in the terms in which it’s been framed, it seems like a good move because it holds the potential to change a dynamic that’s been highly detrimental to Catalonia and to the whole of Spain.

There is no certainty that the gesture will achieve positive effects: the convicts’ attitudes are not making things easier, for the most part; and there are the coalition government’s partisan interests to consider as well, as this move will consolidate its majority in parliament. Even so, it represents an opportunity for a positive change of dynamics for citizens and for Spanish democracy, without making any concessions on principles. That opportunity, rather than any empathy for the pardoned individuals, is the goal that justifies the risk.

It is inconsistent to praise civil society when it protests in Colón square, yet ignore it when its views are unfavorable, saying that only politics matter

In order to achieve any real improvement, it is necessary to abandon the territory of moral and apocalyptic parameters and instead enter the territory of political and pragmatic ones. Several episodes have been pushing in that direction. Following accusations of infamy and betrayal of the homeland, a more serene kind of rhetoric has emerged. The head of the employer association CEOE voiced a serene position (which elicited exaggerated reactions); Popular Party (PP) leaders such as Andalusian premier Juan Manuel Moreno have tried to frame rejection to the pardons as part of normal political dialectics; street activism such as the protest in Madrid’s Colón square and signature collection have made little headway; even the Financial Times, which can hardly be suspected of partisan prejudice or of wanting the breakup of Spain, has backed the pardons. Let us hope that these positions will convince the PP to adopt a more composed style of opposition. It is inconsistent to praise civil society when it protests in Colón square, yet ignore it when its views are unfavorable, saying that only politics matter.

The government should display the same kind of containment. It will explain its position in the proper place to do so, which is parliament. And while it is not realistic to demand to hear an exhaustive explanation of what is going to happen – this is impossible at the beginning of any dialogue – the executive must be clear about what it will not do. It bears noting that, meanwhile, those who oppose the measure don’t even have a sketch of a roadmap for Catalonia. They are contributing nothing to the solution for the political problem.

And that is what Spanish democracy must do, and what Europe to a large extent is expecting: for the Catalan issue to be dealt with through politics. The chosen moment makes sense. A new regional government has just taken charge in Catalonia, and while it pays to retain a healthy dose of skepticism, this new team is exhibiting traits – at least tactical ones – that make it different from the previous one. Citizens, meanwhile, are weary after years of political paralysis and a pandemic crisis, and they want to see less ideology and more management.

The pardons are eliminating an element that was making it difficult to create a new mood. Even so, it will be difficult to make this change of climate take hold, and even more so to achieve real results. The dialogue between the central and Catalan governments moves along a narrow lane. In-depth changes require a broader set of interlocutors. But it is an opportunity worth exploring. Among the terms heard in recent weeks, there have been two recurring ones: concord and magnanimity. The latter concept has a long intellectual history running from the ethics of Aristotle to the thinking of Thomas Aquinas and Dante, and it is an invitation to pause and reflect. Magnanimity should not so much be applied to the institutions as to the leaders who represent them and to the protagonists of the public debate, who should show enough greatness of spirit to avoid attitudes of contempt for other people’s ideas, insults and, in short, anything that might add fuel to a highly flammable political scenario. It’s for the good of Spanish democracy.

English version by Susana Urra.

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