Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya urged Catalan separatists on Wednesday to "abandon unilateralism" after Madrid pardoned nine pro-independence leaders.
"We need to make sure that we abandon unilateralism, which is contrary to the values of the Constitution, and that we channel grievances that people may have," she told Euronews.
"Everyone in Spain can defend his or her views. We are not asking people to change their mind. All we are saying is channel your differences through a dialogue, through a negotiation, which is precisely the setup that the government is offering the Catalans who want to break away from Spain," the official said.
Asked if pardons would be extended to former regional leader Carles Puigdemont, González Laya said: "The pardons were requested for a number of individuals, those that are servicing jail sentences in Spain (...)It may be something that Mr Puigdemont, who, let's not forget, abandoned Spain, should listen to."
Catalonia's leader welcomes Spanish government pardons
Catalan's regional chief on Tuesday welcomed a Spanish government decision to pardon nine Catalan separatist leaders and said the move acknowledged that the separatists’ prosecution was unjust.
Pere Aragonès said the step "helps create credibility towards the right path. A path of negotiation and agreement towards solving the conflict."
Earlier in the day, Spain's government approved the pardons for the politicians and activists imprisoned for their roles in the 2017 independence move, despite strong opposition.
Oriol Junqueras, a former Catalan vice president who in 2019 got the heaviest sentence of 13 years in prison for sedition and misuse of public funds, will go free along with his associates after spending three-and-a-half years behind bars.
The pardons do not cover former Catalonia president Carles Puigdemont and the other high-profile separatists who fled Spain following the unsuccessful breakaway attempt.
Pardons to aid 'coexistence' says PM
Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez first announced the government's intention to pardon the nine jailed separatists on Monday while outlining the roadmap for the future of the northeastern region before a few hundred civil society representatives.
Twelve separatist leaders were convicted for sedition and other crimes and nine of them were handed lengthy prison terms after they pushed ahead with a banned secession referendum and declared independence a few days later based on its results. Most unionists boycotted the vote, which took place amid police violence to stop it.
No prominent pro-independence supporters attended Sánchez's speech at the Catalan regional capital's opera house. Outside the venue, an anti-establishment party and the main pro-independence civil society group held a protest.
"With this action, we materially get nine people out of prison, but we symbolically add millions and millions of people to coexistence," Sánchez said in his speech from Barcelona, titled "Reunion: a project for the future of all Spain."
"We are going to do it for the sake of agreement, we are going to do it wholeheartedly," he added.
The prime minister was interrupted by an activist who carried the unofficial pro-independence Catalan flag and shouted in favor of granting full amnesty to the separatists. While pardons are granted by the government as a way to spare punishment to those convicted, amnesty is seen as a recognition of no fault in the first place.
Pardons criticised by opposition parties
The pardons have become a deeply divisive and controversial topic in recent weeks, exacerbating the tensions of an already fraught political landscape.
The three main opposition parties (right-wing Partido Popular, far-right Vox and liberal Ciudadanos) have criticised Sánchez's government and are rallying their supporters against the measure.
The opposition accuses the prime minister of using the pardons as a means to secure the backing of the Catalan parties. Sánchez's socialists currently lead a minority government in coalition with the left-wing party Podemos and need smaller, regional groups to get its legislative programme passed.
Thousands opposed to the move called for Sánchez's resignation earlier this month during a protest in Madrid, supported by the three Spanish opposition parties, from the political centre to the far-right.
An Ipsos poll released last week found that 53% of Spaniards are against the pardons, 29% support them and 18% don't have an opinion on the matter. However, Catalan business leaders have come forward to back the proposal, saying it would foster social peace.
The controversy around the pardons coincides with the reopening of the Spanish economy, made possible thanks to a drop in COVID-19 cases and a marked acceleration in the vaccination campaign.
The country is getting ready to receive the first round of EU funds after the European Commission approved the country's recovery and resilience plan.
Over the next few years, Spain is set to take in €69.5 billion in grants from the EU's €750-billion recovery fund, known as Next Generation EU. Sánchez has described the recovery plan as the "most ambitious and transcendental of Spain's recent history".
Since the 2017 illegal referendum, the pro-independence movement has tried, with little success, to use Brussels as a stage to bring the conflict into the EU agenda. The institutions opted instead to keep their distance and treat the matter as a domestic issue for Spain to resolve on its own.
Earlier this year, Catalonia's former leader Carles Puigdemont, who lives in exile in Belgium, was stripped of his parliamentary immunity after a vote in the European Parliament.
New Catalonia leader looking for solution with Spain's PM
The recently elected pro-independence leader of Catalonia Pere Aragonès said last week that he was willing to sit at the table with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to find a solution to the long-standing conflict in the northern region of Spain.
"Our proposal is clear: the exercise of the right to self-determination, a referendum on the independence of Catalonia, and an amnesty law to end the repression," he said.
For Aragonès, the pardons would be a welcome first step to build trust among both sides. However, he said more actions and concessions should follow.
"A pardon is a partial and incomplete solution. It's true that it represents a step forward that might enable the liberation of the political prisoners. We're not going to reject that," he said.