Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez takes the oath of office during a ceremony at Zarzuela Palace in Madrid, Spain November 17, 2023 Image Credit: Reuters

Football divides Spain like nothing else. You either cheer for Barcelona, or whoever Barcelona is playing. And if you’re in Madrid, you either cheer for Real Madrid, or Atletico Madrid, or whoever they are playing.

Yes, it’s that tribal.

So too is the city of Madrid itself. Take the Paseo de Prado for example — a wide boulevard with historic and national institutions lining each side. And about 150 metres apart, are the fountains of Cibeles at one end, Neptuno at another. Depending on whether Atletico or Real have been victorious in any competition, jubilant fans gather in their hundreds of thousands at their respective fountains. Real Madrid at Cibeles, Atletico at Neptuno.

On Saturday, there were hundreds of thousands of people on the Paseo de Prado and at both fountains. But there was, in their collective minds, nothing to cheer about. No, instead they were angry — and unified — in their belief that they beloved Spain is on the verge of an historic and grave mistake: One that would see Catalan separatists who have been criminally prosecuted and convicted for sedition and other serious political crimes for trying to break up Spain.

You see, it’s not just Barcelo’s free-flowing football style that’s unique. No, if a small majority of the 7.6 million people who call Spain’s second-richest province home had their way. Catalonia would be independent.

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Suppositions and assumptions

There have, over the past two decades, been a series of referendums and popular plebiscites that have tried to declare the province independent.

Spain, you seen, if a nation that’s made up of 19 separate regions, each with their own assemblies that are responsible for local and regional laws, the environment, health delivery — and while the federal government in Madrid looks after defence, the economy, foreign policy, immigration and the overall direction of most issues, a lot of the day-to-day regional governance is dealt with by those assemblies. Catalonia has its own language — so too the Basques and Galicia, for example — and there is a belief held there that they should be independent.

Each time a plebiscite has been held, each time Spain’s Constitutional Court has ruled it null and void. Spain, under its national laws, can’t be broken up. And for the vast majority of Spaniards, that’s just the way it is and will be.

That’s why Catalonian separatists are determined to forge ahead with their independence drive, ready to point out that Catalonia will never get the recognition it needs and deserves while part of a nation that is dead set against its historic destiny. Yes, there are many suppositions and assumptions made in that previous sentence, but the separatists won’t be deterred no matter the current illegality of their constitutional argument to go their own way.

Besides, any bid to declare Catalonia independent without proper authority would fail to be recognised by most democratic nations around the world. Would North Korea and Syria recognition count for anything?

For the past decade, the pressing issue of how to deal with the Catalonian question has taxed successive Spanish governments, whether conservative under the leadership of Mariano Rajoy and his Popular Party from 2011 to 2018, or under the Socialists and their coalition partners and Pedro Sanchez, from 2018 onwards.

Rajoy was Prime Minister when the Catalonians tried to hold their last illegal plebiscite. He was also at the helm for the previous vote early into his tenureship. Then he was criticized for not referring the vote to the Constitutional Court until after the votes were counted — the federalists boycotted the process and the court declared the vote null and void because, as stated above, there is no legal process nor concept to separate from the rest of Spain.

In October, 2017, the separatists tried another vote, and Rajoy went the legal route beforehand, with the organisers being warned that they faced sedition charges and jail if they went ahead. Undeterred, the vote went ahead, the federalist voters boycotted the process, and hundreds were arrested.

The separatist leader at the time, Carles Puigdemont, fled to Belgium after leading the failed breakaway attempt, others were jailed, and some 400 people in various positions in the Catalan government, police and political parties were hauled before the courts.

Catalonia is deeply divisive

Rajoy’s government was subsequently embroiled in a corruption scandal. With Sanchez as the leader of the Socialists, he organised the Basques and Catalan deputies in Madrid to oppose Rajoy’s budget. After a few tense days and backroom political deals, Rajoy’s government was toppled, Sanchez became Prime Minister, and his broad coalition won a subsequent four-year term in a general election.

Sanchez has proven himself to be a gambler prepared to forego principles to get the result he wants. He did it to get rid of Rajoy, and he’s doing it again now.

He gambled on calling a general election in the height of the Spanish summer when politics is the last thing on people’s minds as temperatures soar to 45 degree Celsius. The conservative PP and the far right Vox party failed to get a majority — and Sanchez had predicted. And last Wednesday, Sanchez was formally returned to power in Madrid. And the price for doing so is that Faustian deal exacted by the Catalan separatists that the 400 or so people convicted for their part in the illegal referendum process should receive amnesty.

For many Spaniards — more than a million took to streets across the nation last Saturday, the amnesty bill is too much. Traitors are traitors, and their illegal act of trying to break up Spain shouldn’t be forgiven.

It’s a difficult one. Without moving forward in some way, the Catalan issue will remain front and centre in Spanish politics. Not moving forward also means the Catalan issue will remain front and centre in Spanish politics.

Sanchez, however, reckons doing a deal means he can return to the business of governing. And that is the first rule of politics anywhere. Who knows where this is going to end up. But the issue of Catalan’s future in Spain isn’t going away anytime soon. It’s a game that will be replayed many, many times.