The recently elected pro-independence leader of Catalonia is ready to open a new chapter of dialogue with the Spanish government and intensify relations with the European institutions.
Speaking to Euronews during his visit to Brussels, Pere Aragonès, the 38-year-old leader of Catalonia, said 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.
Aragonès was elected president of the regional government last month after his left-wing republican party, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), struck a deal with the other main pro-independence party, Junts, which advocates for a more confrontational approach towards Madrid.
It took four months and several parliamentary votes before Aragonès earned enough support in the regional chamber.
'Pardons should be a first step'
The Catalan question has been pushed back to the forefront of Spanish politics after Pedro Sánchez made official his intention to pardon the 12 separatist politicians and activists who in 2019 were found guilty of sedition and sentenced to prison. The charges relate to the contentious 2017 independence referendum, which was organised despite being deemed illegal by the central government.
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 come together to criticise Sánchez's government and rally 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.
An Ipsos poll released this week found that 53% of Spaniards are against the pardons, 29% support them and 18% don't have an opinion on the matter. Catalan business leaders have come forward to back the proposal, saying it would foster social peace.
For Aragonès, the pardons would be a welcome first step to build trust among both sides. But, he cautions, more actions and concessions should follow.
"A pardon is a partial and incomplete solution. It's true that it represent a step forward that might enable the liberation of the political prisoners. We're not going to reject that," he said.
The Spanish government repudiates the term "political prisoners" in the context of the jailed Catalan separatists and argues they are simply prisoners who have broken the law.
"But we must underline that there are still many pending legal cases at European level, like the Court of Auditors, that might lead to the imprisonment of dozens of people," Aragonès added.
"Therefore it should be a first step. And we know that a solution to a situation of generalised repression is an amnesty law."
According to Spanish media, the pardons will be reversible and will be annulled if an offender commits a new crime. Their scope will be limited, focusing on the release of the prisoners and the forgiveness of the major charges. The separatists will still be banned from holding public office.
'Common interests with the EU'
Pedro Sánchez hopes that, by granting the pardons, the confrontational attitude of the Catalan government will subside and the social tensions in the region will progressively decrease. However, Aragonès warns that, regardless of the pardons, the "political conflict" will remain in place.
"The proposal about Catalonia's independence challenges the status quo of the Spanish state, and that's the reason why there's a political conflict," the Catalan leader says.
"We'll have to see if the Spanish government, within this chapter of dialogue, is ready to accept a solution like the United Kingdom did back then with Scotland or if it will continue the path of imposition, which is what we have been living so far."
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 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".
Aragonès believes that the present circumstances – his new government, the pardons and the economic recovery – would help Catalonia reinforce its relations with the European institutions.
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.
"I'm convinced that the relations between Catalonia and the European institutions is very positive [thanks to] to the common interests regarding economic recovery, Catalonia's participation in the Next Generation EU funds, the EU goals in terms of energy transition, the economy, and social and environmental cohesion, which are fully shared by the Catalan government," Aragonès said.
"The government of Catalonia has started to work a few weeks ago, therefore it is still too early to be able to judge the approach that the European institutions will have.
"We are open. It is in our interest to have the best possible relationship because obviously, Catalonia is within the scope of the EU. Our project is clearly pro-European."