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THE EURO ZONE

Reality bites

Now, I'm all for being optimistic. I much prefer optimism, as a guiding principle in life, to pessimism - the grumbling, joyless expectation that the worst will always materialise, that people will always disappoint you. But there's a limit, somewhere around that hazy frontier where reality meets fantasy and where optimism becomes naivety. With that in mind, read these words, spoken at a press conference on Monday by acting economy minister Nadia Calviño: "I hope the sentence lets us begin a new phase based on dialogue and the rule of law... [S]o that Catalonia can play its role as a motor for growth in [Spain]".

Calviño was talking, of course, about the Supreme Court's sentences for leading Catalan secessionists, finally handed down on Monday after a lengthy trial earlier this year. In connection with their roles in organising the independence referendum of October 2017 - in which 92% of a 43% turnout voted to split from the rest of Spain - nine men and women received sentences of between nine and thirteen years for sedition. Oriol Junqueras, former vice president of Catalonia, received the longest sentence of 13 years, for sedition and misuse of public funds.

These draconian sentences, passed down by a politicised judiciary determined to make examples of the secessionists, have caused public outrage in Catalonia.

Former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, still in self-imposed exile in Belgium after fleeing in the wake of the 2017 referendum, wrote an impassioned article in The Guardian condemning the Supreme Court's decisions, concluding with the words, "We will never back down". Indeed, the harsh prison terms are likely to radicalise "independistas", rather than halt them in their tracks.

Calviño hopes instead that they will usher in a new phase of peaceful negotiation between Barcelona and Madrid, based on respect for the "rule of law".

Yet it's precisely because the law is perceived to have been applied egregiously here that there is so much anger at the sentences. Certainly, the secessionists did act illegally in organising the October 2017 referendum, which was declared unconstitutional in advance by Spain's Constitutional Court. Some kind of punishment, you could argue, was necessary. But what about a lengthy ban from public office, rather than a decade behind bars?

That's exactly how Artur Mas, former president of Catalonia and orchestrator of a Catalan independence vote in 2014, was punished (along with a fine of €36,500).

The hefty sentences have lowered chances of rational dialogue between Catalan secessionists and the Spanish government, not increased them. That's already obvious, with acting prime minister Pedro Sánchez refusing to grant the amnesty requested for the prisoners by Catalonian president Quim Torra.

Calviño's hope that the incarceration of leading separatists is part of the solution to the Catalan problem isn't justified optimism: it's pure wishful thinking.