The issue of Catalonian independence has returned to the forefront of Spanish politics in recent weeks. At least 170,000 people protested in Madrid on 18 November against an amnesty deal for 400 people who were arrested for their involvement in a 2017 independence referendum. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and his Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) signed the deal with two Catalonian political parties and the Basque Nationalist Party in return for support to form government.

The large demonstration followed several protests of tens of thousands that have taken place across Spain over the past few weeks. They have called Sánchez a traitor to Spain and demanded his resignation.

The centre-right People’s Party (PP) and far-right Vox are the movement’s key leaders. PP leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo has called on the European Union to overturn the amnesty, while Vox’s Santiago Abascal has said he is “alerting international allies to what is happening in Spain”. (One of Vox’s notable international allies is Italian far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.) Neo-Nazi groups led protests outside the PSOE’s headquarters for fifteen consecutive days when the amnesty was announced. 

The right, which lost last July’s election, has gained traction out of the protests, and could continue to grow if they continue. There is little support for the amnesty in the general population: 70 percent of Spanish voters opposed the deal in a mid-September poll, including two-thirds of those who voted for the PSOE in the July election. 

Spanish nationalism is a cornerstone of the political right. Vox gained popularity by opposing the 2017 referendum. Since the end of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in 1978, the PP has opposed national autonomy for the Catalan and Basque regions and appealed to the Spanish constitution, which gives the national government the power to suspend a region’s autonomy.

The Spanish left has not been much better. The PSOE is firmly against independence, and Sánchez signed the amnesty only to save his own skin. In 2017, Podemos, a progressive party, supported the referendum but opposed independence.

The referendum ignited a battle between the Spanish state and Catalan civilians. Then Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy deployed more than 10,000 police units to stop people from even approaching a ballot box. They injured hundreds of Catalans, destroyed polling places and seized ballot boxes.

Despite this, 3 million people voted. With around 2.3 million votes counted, 90 percent voted yes to independence. 

However, the approach of then Catalan President Carles Puigdemont to begin talks with the PP government prior to declaring independence put the movement into a standstill. Rajoy took advantage of this, using the constitutional power to dismiss Puigdemont and the Catalan government. Catalonia was put under the control of Madrid.

Autonomy was restored after a new government was elected in 2020—but nine separatist leaders were imprisoned for between nine and thirteen years. 

Anti-Catalonian independence is a right-wing drag on Spanish society, and the current protests could help the PP, Vox and neo-Nazi groups gain traction. At a time when the far-right is surging in parts of Europe, such as Italy and the Netherlands, this is a dangerous development.