MADRID—Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez made what could very well be the most consequential decision of his time in office last week: pardoning nine leaders from the northeastern region of Catalonia who were serving prison sentences for their roles in organizing an illegal independence referendum in 2017. Speaking a day before the official announcement at the iconic Liceu Opera House in the Catalan capital, Barcelona, Sanchez made an emotional plea for reconciliation to an audience of 300 civic leaders—some of whom erupted into shouts of “independence” as he spoke, while hundreds of pro-separatist demonstrators gathered outside.
“We can’t start from scratch, but we can start anew,” Sanchez said. “We can change the lives of nine people and start changing history.”
Pardoning the Catalan separatists was a smart move at the right time. It ensures that Sanchez’s ruling coalition will retain the much-needed support of Catalan nationalists in the Spanish parliament and should help calm tensions with Catalonia, which have remained high since the failed referendum. Sanchez’s move also weakens the separatists’ argument to the international community that they are being treated unfairly by the central government. But there could also be a political price to pay: 61 percent of the country disapproves of the pardons, including 53 percent of Sanchez’s own Socialist Party voters.