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  • Tomas Gouveia

Puigdemont gets charges dropped. Separatism in Europe is back on the news

Sedition charges on Carles Puigdemont, the former President of the Region of Catalonia who oversaw the 2017 independence attempt, and other separatist leaders have been dropped by Spanish courts. The court’s ruling falls under new changes to the penal code introduced this year. Proposed by the Spanish government and passed by the legislature in 2022, it eliminated sedition as a crime in the penal code and made other smaller changes. Before this, sedition was punishable by up to 15 years in prison, and had been used in the last years against some leaders of the Catalan independence movement. The current government, led by the centre-left PSOE party, justified the changes, arguing that it was the only way the Spanish government could reduce some of the pressure in Catalan politics, and that sedition needed to be removed from the penal code in order to bring the country in line with its EU partners.

Although the changes passed the legislative chambers, the government has come under heavy criticism from the opposition over these changes. The main opposition party in Spain, the centre-right PP, has voiced their concern over what they consider to be a mistake, and the far-right party VOX has argued that the central government has now allowed for Catalan leaders to plot the region’s independence with no legal consequences. Pedro Sánchez, the Spanish Prime-Minister, had attempted to reassure opposition groups, maintaining that those charged with sedition would instead be charged with “aggravated public disorder”, however the courts decided not to charge the independence leaders.

Catalan independence has been a crucial topic of debate in Madrid over the last years. In 2021, Sánchez pardoned several Catalan leaders who had also been charged with sedition, which was condemned by opposition parties and was followed by large protests on the streets of the Spanish capital. The government had again justified the move by stating pressure in Catalan politics. However, the fact that the left-wing government in place relies on several pro-independence parties, including the ERC from Catalonia, to pass several bills including the national budget allowed opposition parties to accuse the government of working for these parties in order to prop-up the government. In fact, pardoning several Catalan leaders was a condition set by the ERC for continued support in parliament.

Many of the pro-independence leaders are currently out of the country, including Puigdemont who is fulfilling his mandate as an MEP in Brussels. Many fled after the illegal independence referendum, led by Puigdemont’s regional government, that took place in Catalonia in 2017, which saw violent clashes between the national police and civilians on the streets, and a quick declaration of independence that was considered invalid by the national government.

Will this impact the Catalan independence movement?

Several pro-independence leaders that had already been convicted, with an inability to hold public office for several years, may now be eligible to hold public office again due to the changes to the penal code. Given that municipal, provincial and legislative elections are all scheduled for 2023 in Spain, this may reinvigorate the movement and place these pro-independence figures in places of power. Nevertheless, Puigdemont, who is considered the leader of the movement, is still charged with disobedience and the misuse of public funds for the illegal 2017 referendum, which would still equate to eight years in prison. None of the several EU countries that Puigdemont has been in since have granted Spain’s extradition request due to the existence of sedition in the Spanish penal code, and Puigdemont currently has parliamentary immunity as a member of the EU Parliament. The Spanish Supreme Court has stated that a new extradition request will be filed to Belgian authorities, yet, it is now the General Court of the EU that decides on whether Puigdemont’s parliamentary immunity survives this request. Marta Rovira, another important pro-independence figure, has herself stated that she will not be returning to Spain in the near future.

Moreover, the years since 2017 have seen internal divisions over the question in Catalonia. In September of 2022, the Diada marches, a yearly march for independence where protestors wear the colours of the Catalan flag, were the scene of 150 000 marchers wearing mostly black to symbolise the independence promises broken by their regional leaders. A majority of the votes in the 2021 Catalan regional election went to pro-independence parties, a first in the region’s history. Nevertheless, the regional offshoot of the PSOE became the largest party and the pro-independence parties agree on little. Pere Aragonès, the current regional president and member of the ERC, has attempted to reach a deal with the central government, aggravating many in the other pro-independence party Junts. Aragonès has argued that “people who oppose this will see in the future that this is the best way to arrive at a democratic solution.”, however this has done little to build bridges.

The Catalan independence movement is loosing force. 2022 opinion polling showed that 52% of Catalan’s were against independence from Spain, up from 2017, and the central government in Madrid has ruled out a new referendum on the subject.

Are other separatist movements moving forward in Europe?

Separatist movements across Europe have been on the news in recent months, however, many face limited options moving forward. In Scotland, the question has returned to the table ever since the Brexit referendum, where Scotland sat on the opposite side of the results, voting to remain in the EU. Sentiments were revived when the UK Supreme Court ruled against a second independence referendum without Westminster’s consent, which saw protests break out in Scotland; and when in January, the UK government used section 35 of the Scotland Act for the first time in history to block the Scottish gender recognition bill, which made many argue that Scottish democracy is under attack. Although the SNP (Scottish independence party) increased their share of vote share by 8.1% in Scotland in the last general election, and the latest YouGov polling shows that 53% of the Scottish public would back independence, both the current government and the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, have ruled out a second independence referendum.

The separatist movement in Flanders, north of Belgium, has also risen to public attention. Van Grieken, the leader of Vlaams Belang, the far-right pro-independence party, announced last year that his party would declare Flanders independent in 2029 if they entered government in 2024. Vlaams Belang won 11.95% of the vote in the 2019 legislative elections, increasing their vote share by over 8%, and opinion polling shows the party would go from 18 seats to 25 for the 2024 elections.


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