The Memo: Spain passes amnesty law for Catalan separatists

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Spain passes amnesty law for Catalan separatists

James Westmacott - 18 March 2024

After the immediate results of Spain’s general election last July produced nothing but uncertainty, the direction of the country seemed confused. Parties had just contested the nation’s closest election since 1996, with the conservative and Christian-democratic Partido Popular finishing top of the pile without a majority. The Socialist Workers’ Party in second place were therefore able to initially team up with the Junts (Together for Catalonia), with Catalan nationalist leader Carles Puigdemont – who has lived in self-imposed exile in Belgium since 2017 following the failed Catalan independence referendum – offering to hold the balance of power until a new government was formed. As a result of such support, Puigdemont and the Junts demanded a law granting amnesty to those prosecuted for their involvement in Catalonia’s botched attempt to secede from Spain, and it would now appear that they’ve got their wish.

A parliamentary vote on the amnesty law bill was held last week, narrowly passing by 178 votes to 172. Whilst the law is not yet official and remains only in draft form, roughly 400 individuals who played a key role in both Catalonia’s 2014 and 2017 secession attempts are set to have criminal prosecutions retroactively relinquished, exempting them from their controversial and pending sentences. Many of the perpetrators (including leader Puigdemont himself) are currently being investigated for terrorism charges, with the new draft law guaranteeing protection from such accusations. However, any offences deemed terrorism by EU law on the supranational level will remain undefended by the new amnesty provisions. Critics argue that the move will rejuvenate recently depleted Catalan nationalism, arguing that the law is unconstitutional as it threatens Spain’s current political structure.

But, whilst Spain is famous for its fractious political nature when it comes to regional separatism claims, such independence protests are familiar to us in the UK, too. Scotland rejected secession from the UK in 2014, and Irish reunification has become a strong talking point once again following the Brexit vote and subsequent fears over a potentially disruptive hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Welsh nationalist claims to pursue independence have grown, while regions such as Cornwall, Yorkshire, and even London have also laid out varying degrees of secession claims. However, thanks to devolution and the current constitutional order, secession for any region from the UK, unlike in Spain, remains entirely legal with no laws restricting one’s ability to advocate for, protest, or bring about a form of regional separatism.