FOCUS: What next for Spain after PM’s pardon of jailed Catalan separatists?

In pardoning the Catalan separatists jailed over a failed 2017 independence bid, Spain's government is making a risky gamble which may calm tensions but won't solve the crisis, analysts say.

FOCUS: What next for Spain after PM's pardon of jailed Catalan separatists?
Catalonia’s jailed separatists, from front row R-L: Oriol Junqueras, Raul Romeva, Joaquim Forn, Jordi Sanchez, Jordi Turull, Josep Rull, Jordi Cuixart, Carme Forcadell, Dolors Bassa, Carles Mundo, Santi Vila and Meritxel Borras at a trial at the Supreme Court in Madrid. Photo: Emilio Naranjo/AFP

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced the pardon on Monday in Barcelona, with his government set to formally approve the move at Tuesday’s cabinet meeting.

“The pardons will help ease tensions between the Catalan government and Madrid and facilitate negotiations, but it’s difficult to see that leading to an agreement between the sides,” said Lluis Orriols, a political scientist at Madrid’s Carlos III University.

“That’s still a long way off.”

In October 2017, Catalonia’s separatist regional leadership staged a referendum on independence despite a ban by Madrid, which was marred by police violence.

A few weeks later, they made a short-lived declaration of independence, sparking Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.

That prompted then Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont to flee abroad while others who stayed in Spain were arrested and tried.

Nine were sent to prison for between nine and 13 years.

“The pardons are symbolic in essence,” says Cristina Monge, a political scientist at the University of Zaragoza.

“It’s a way of being able to return to the negotiating table with a proof of goodwill, and also to reposition the conflict within the political sphere.”

Pro-independence demonstrators gather during a protest as Spain's prime minister Pedro Sanchez delivers his speech at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, on June 21, 2021 to outline his government's plans to pardon the jailed Catalan separatists behind a failed 2017 independence bid. - Spain's government will pardon the jailed Catalan separatists behind a failed 2017 independence bid, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)Photo: Josep Lago/AFP

Since Sanchez’s minority left-wing coalition came to power in January 2020, it has relied in part on the support of ERC, a leftist Catalan separatist party, which in return demanded talks on resolving the separatist conflict.

However, the sides only met once before the talks were suspended by the pandemic.

But they are set to resume quickly after a meeting later this month between Sanchez and new Catalan leader Pere Aragones, an ERC moderate who is far more open to negotiating than his predecessor, Quim Torra, from the hardline JxCat.

The independence movement in the northeastern region is unlikely to give up on its main aims — to obtain an amnesty for all those involved in the 2017 independence bid, and to hold a referendum on self-determination, this time with Madrid’s approval.

Both options have been firmly ruled out by the Spanish government.

But the pardons offer the chance to shake things up in Catalonia where support for independence has grown over the past decade, said Oriol Bartomeus, a political scientist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

“The moment you take the prisoners out of the equation” — thereby removing a factor used by separatists to galvanise their supporters into action — “you force the independence movement to rethink,” he said.

And even if they publicly stick to their lines, “a new chapter will open behind the scenes”.

Last week, Aragones called for amnesty and a new referendum while visiting Puigdemont in Belgium where he fled after the independence crisis, with both saying the pardons would not solve the ongoing political conflict.Nor did Aragones attend the Spanish prime minister’s speech in Barcelona on Monday.

But both Aragones and Oriol Junqueras, ERC’s leader and the prisoner serving the longest sentence of 13 years, have taken a step towards Sanchez in distancing themselves from the path of unilateralism.

For Puigdemont, who has never been tried for his role in the crisis, the pardons change nothing, with the hardline leader only able to return to Spain in the event of an amnesty.

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Qatar emir visits Spain as EU eyes gas alternatives

Qatar's emir began a state visit to Spain on Tuesday as Europe seeks to diversify its natural gas supply sources to reduce its energy dependence on Russia.

Qatar emir visits Spain as EU eyes gas alternatives

Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani was welcomed by King Felipe VI at Madrid’s royal palace at the start of his two-day visit, his first to Spain since he ascended the throne in 2013.

The emir, who is accompanied by Qatar’s foreign and energy ministers, is scheduled to hold talks with Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on Wednesday.

Spain and Qatar are expected to sign a dozen economic and commercial contracts during his visit, mainly regarding energy, according to a Spanish government source.

The visit comes as the European Union is aiming to cut its reliance on Russian gas by two-thirds this year due to Russia’s invasion of  Ukraine.

Russia currently supplies around 40 percent of Europe’s gas needs.

Qatar, which has the third-largest natural gas reserves in the world, is currently Spain’s fifth-biggest supplier of natural gas after the United States, Algeria, Nigeria and Egypt.

The country accounted for 4.4 percent of Spain’s total gas imports in April and the Spanish government hopes this share could increase.

“We are working closely with out European counterparts” on the long-term supply of liquefied natural gas (LNG), Qatar’s ambassador to Spain, Abdullah Al-Hamar, told Spanish daily 20 Minutos.

The emir of Qatar’s trip to Europe will also include visits to Germany, Britain, Slovenia and Switzerland, where he will attend the World Economic Forum which will run in the mountain resort of Davos from May 22nd-26th.