After Spain released a number of prisoners imprisoned following the Catalan independence vote in 2017, Joseph Hammond writes this may be less out of forgiveness and more for political point-scoring. 

After three years in prison, the Spanish government released nine key Catalan political prisoners in June. The group's arrest and prosecution were tied to the 2017 Catalan independence referendum. Many analysts have portrayed the move as something of a sop from Madrid's socialist government to the restless region of Catalonia. Something of an olive branch. Yet, in reality the move may have been aimed at capitals beyond the Iberian Peninsula.

Most prominent among the released prisoners was former Catalonia Vice President Oriol Junqueras. Junqueras was held along with several former cabinet members and the former regional speaker of parliament. A further two were two pro-independence activists who held no office. Those released are barred from holding office in Spain but, their real political motivation is an independent Catalonia.

If anything, the release speaks to the diligent diplomatic efforts of the Catalan independence movements to keep the issue alive in local and international media. Something that is no small feat in an age where social media has reduced our attention spans even further and Madrid subjects discussion on the issue to a 'full-court press' in attempts to suppress it.

The 2017 poll saw the Spanish government intervene to seize ballots and, in some cases, beat many who tried to vote in a Catalan independence referendum. Still, the government of Catalonia hailed the final vote as a triumph of democracy. Spanish courts called it illegal.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez is seen as attempting to reconcile with Catalonia through the release of the prisoners, despite the protests the move drew in Madrid. Yet if it was meant as a gesture of reconciliation, it was a half-hearted one. Several of the political prisoners remain barred from political office. Furthermore, former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont remains in effective exile in Belgium, which has refused for the past three years to extradite him to Spain and who was elected to the European parliament in 2019. Other individuals remain in jail. Surely, Sanchez knows that those released will not stop campaigning for the right to have another vote on the independence question, this time recognized by Madrid, à la the situation between Scotland and London.

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The release, in fact, may have more to do with geopolitics than Spanish political considerations. The release comes as Spain seeks to trumpet the fact that it will host the 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid. This will be an important event for Spain. During the Cold War a few non-democracies were NATO members, notably the Portuguese regime of Antonio Salazar and Greece for a period following the 1967 coup; Spain under Franco was not one of these, and only joined the alliance in 1986 following a referendum. Spain has only hosted one previous NATO Summit in 1997. Protests and tensions over Catalonia are a potential distraction to next year's event that Spain hopes will be a success.

More importantly, the release comes after a key vote at the Council of Europe, just a day earlier, which called for the release of the prisoners in Spain. A vote which received support from both conservatives and socialists. At the heart of the matter, the European Union realized that these prisoners, several of whom were duly elected politicians, were simply fulfilling their mandate in their speech.

Thus, Sanchez may be playing a different confidence game altogether in releasing these prisoners. Sanchez and authorities in Madrid find comparisons between Spain's handling of the Catalan question and nations in Eastern Europe who are seen to be back-sliding on democracy as unnerving. Yet, there are economic considerations as well.

Indeed, just two weeks prior to the release of the prisoners, Spain had been granted a generous COVID-19 bailout package. Sanchez and his socialist government have high hopes for these funds. Some ?140 billion will be spent, and Sanchez has promised no less than the greatest transformation the country has seen since it joined what was to become the European Union in 1986. Not an entirely unreasonable pledge given that in 1986 Spain received a mere ?8 billion. Sanchez, who has compared the funds to a new European 'Marshall Plan', is banking that the funds will benefit Catalonia and wider Spain. With the European Union and key European countries already critical of Spain's failure to reform pensions and other issues, releasing a few political prisoners may be a ploy to buy more time.

While that may seem like ancient history, it was only on June 30th, 2021, that the Spanish Central Bank stopped accepting pesetas dated after 1939 as exchangeable legal tender. Indeed, images showed thousands of Spaniards in Barcelona and elsewhere clutching piggy banks full of pesetas, having waited until the last possible moment to exchange them.

When it comes to Madrid, Barcelona, and their relationship to Europe, it seems many people are still hedging their bets.

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