The Value of Independence

Clara Ponsatí and her lawyer, Aamer Anwar, Edinburgh, Scotland, April 2018
Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images
Clara Ponsatí and her lawyer, Aamer Anwar, after her extradition hearing in Edinburgh, Scotland, April 2018; Ponsatí was wanted in Spain on charges related to her involvement in the October 2017 referendum on Catalan independence

A year ago, a small, white-haired woman emerged from an Edinburgh courthouse into a cheering crowd waving Catalan banners and Scottish flags. Clara Ponsatí, a professor of economics and finance at the University of St. Andrews, had just been served with an arrest warrant issued by the Spanish government that demanded her extradition to face charges of rebellion and misappropriation of funds.

For a few months in 2017, Ponsatí had been minister of education in the Catalan government as it organized and carried out a referendum on independence from Spain. After a horrified world watched Spanish police clubbing citizens attempting to vote in the referendum, which had been declared illegal by the Constitutional Tribunal in Madrid, she fled to Belgium and then returned to Scotland. Several other ministers, including Carles Puigdemont, the president of the Catalan government, also received arrest warrants in the countries where they had taken refuge. Twelve Catalan leaders, elected politicians or activists, were imprisoned and are at the moment on trial in Madrid before the Supreme Court on charges of rebellion and misuse of public funds. If Scotland sent her back to Spain, Ponsatí would face rebellion charges carrying a sentence of up to twenty-five years in prison.

In the street, her lawyer told the crowd that she would fight the extradition. Instantly, money for her legal battle began to flow in. Within two hours, the Scottish public had contributed £40,000; a day later, the fund had reached almost £250,000. Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of the Scottish National Party (SNP) government, declared her solidarity with Ponsatí. Scottish columnists bombarded the Spanish government with reproaches.

Under Scots law, extradition can only be granted if the offense cited would also constitute a crime in Scotland. The Edinburgh prosecutors were reduced to digging up a statute of 1351, updated in the Treason Felony Act of 1848, which was concerned with “levying war against her Majesty.” Months passed without a decision, while the modest but determined Ponsatí became Scotland’s latest heroine. Then in June 2018, the right-wing Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy suddenly fell and was replaced by a socialist administration under Pedro Sanchez. Within weeks, the extradition requests were withdrawn, although Ponsatí and her colleagues are still liable to be arrested if they step onto Spanish soil.

The Ponsatí affair was an easy way for Scots—not only those active in their own independence movement—to show their affection for Catalans and their cause. The relationship has a history. In the 1970s, soon after the fall of the Franco dictatorship in Spain, the Catalan leader Jordi Pujol was making…

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