Spanish MPs give final approval to amnesty law for Catalonia’s separatists

<span>The Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez and first deputy PM María Jesús Montero in parliament on Thursday, where the new law was approved by 177 votes to 172.</span><span>Photograph: Susana Vera/Reuters</span>
The Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez and first deputy PM María Jesús Montero in parliament on Thursday, where the new law was approved by 177 votes to 172.Photograph: Susana Vera/Reuters

Spanish MPs have given their final approval to the deeply divisive amnesty law that the country’s socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, offered Catalan separatists in return for helping him back to power after last year’s inconclusive general election.

The new law, approved by 177 votes to 172 in Spain’s 350-seat congress of deputies, will apply to about 400 people involved in the symbolic independence referendum of November 2014 and the illegal unilateral poll that followed three years later, which triggered Spain’s worst political crisis in four decades.

Its most high-profile beneficiary will be the former Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium to avoid arrest over his role in masterminding the illegal push to secede in 2017, which culminated in a short-lived, unilateral declaration of regional independence. Once the law is published in the official state gazette, he will be free to return to Spain after almost seven years of self-imposed exile.

Other beneficiaries will include headteachers who had faced criminal action for allowing their schools to be used as referendum polling stations, civil servants, firefighters, and dozens of the police officers who were dispatched to Catalonia to use force to stop people voting in the second independence poll.

The issue of the amnesty arose after the conservative People’s party (PP) came first in last July’s snap general election but failed to muster enough support to form a new government. That left the way open for Sánchez’s Spanish Socialist Worker’s party (PSOE) to try to cobble together enough votes to bring about his return to office.

He could only do so, however, by enlisting the two main Catalan pro-independence parties, Puigdemont’s hardline, centre-right Together for Catalonia party (Junts) and the more moderate, pragmatic Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC). Their price was the amnesty – a concession that Sánchez, who had vowed to bring Puigdemont back to Spain to face justice, had previously ruled out.

Sánchez’s volte-face was seized on by the PP and Vox, which repeatedly accused him of cynicism, hypocrisy and seeking to cling to power at any cost. It led to violent protests outside the PSOE’s headquarters in Madrid, as well as a series of large, peaceful demonstrations across Spain as people vented their fury at the prospect of Puigdemont escaping punishment for seeking to undermine Spain’s national unity. A poll last September showed that 70% of Spaniards, including 59% of the people who voted for the PSOE at the last election, opposed the amnesty.

Speaking in congress before Thursday’s vote, the PP’s leader, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, dismissed Sánchez’s claim that the amnesty was designed to restore coexistence between Catalonia and the rest of Spain.

“If Sánchez changes the law at the behest of those who have broken it, if he erases the crimes of a group of politicians in return for being prime minister, then what do you call that?’ he asked. “Don’t you dare call it coexistence. Don’t mock the people.”

Sánchez, however, said his more conciliatory approach to the so-called Catalan question, which has included issuing pardons three years ago to nine Catalan leaders convicted over their roles in the independence effort, had served to reduced tensions.

“In politics, as in life, forgiveness is more powerful than bitterness,” he said after the vote. “Today, Spain is more prosperous and more united than in 2017. Coexistence paves the way.”

In a televised address in Brussels early on Thursday evening, Puigdemont said the approval of the amnesty law had served to correct “one in a long list of errors” committed by the Spanish state against the people of Catalonia. He said it had at least made negotiations possible, adding: “The path to travel is not exactly a path of roses, starting with the application of the law itself. But today we removed the thorns from our feet that prevented us from moving forward.”

Pere Aragonès, the ERC caretaker president of Catalonia, said the amnesty alone would not solve “the conflict between Spain and Catalonia” and renewed his calls for a mutually agreed referendum that would “give the final word to the people of Catalonia”.

Despite the huge political capital Sánchez has expended on the amnesty, his strategy paid off in this month’s Catalan election, which was won by the regional branch of the PSOE. Although the Catalan socialists finished first, they fell short of a majority, and Puigdemont has vowed to return to Spain when the Catalan parliament convenes to choose the region’s next president.