Steven Forti – Catalonia: With Sánchez there could be a thaw in relations with Spain

Steven Forti looks at the political changes in Spain and the consequences they may have, especially with regard to his meeting on Saturday with the Catalan president Quim Torra.

Steven Forti is Researcher at the Instituto de História Contemporânea of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa and Professor at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

Edited and translated by BRAVE NEW EUROPE

The Catalan crisis seemed on the verge of becoming chronic. Nothing had changed since the brutal repression by the Spanish government of the independence referendum in October and the regional elections in December – in which the independence movement again achieved a majority. On the one hand, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy´s government was refusing to open channels of dialogue with Barcelona, delegating an essentially political issue to the notoriously reactionary courts . On the other hand, the Catalan independence coalition confirmed their uncompromising line with the election of Quim Torra as president of the Catalan government, the Generalitat. Mr Torra is a conservative nationalist and a loyal supporter of the former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont. It seemed the standoff of the past two years was set to continue. But in fact the radical differences were becoming even more acute, with the risk of an ever deeper fracture in society.

Sometimes, however, unexpected events completely overturn a situation. On May 23rd, the minority executive of the Partido Popular (PP) led by Mariano Rajoy was able to get the 2018 budget approved by the Cortes of Madrid, the Spanish parliament, with the votes of Ciudadanos and the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV). Rajoy breathed a sigh of relief, convinced that he could politically survive the rest of the legislative session up to its conclusion in 2020. The following day, however, the judgment in the Gürtel case was announced, in which a large number of Rajoy´s PP functionaries received severe prison sentence for corruption. The PP itself was judged to be a “profit-making participant” in the scam.

This was the reason for the motion of censure tabled in Parliament by the socialist leader Pedro Sánchez. Few were betting he would win, least of all the PP. But Sánchez surprised everyone – perhaps even himself. This marked the end of the Rajoy era, which had begun in November 2011, in the midst of the economic crisis. A new, extremely uncertain one has begun.


The strength and weakness of the Sánchez government

On June 2nd, Sánchez was sworn in as the new Spanish prime minister. In a few days, the Social Democrat leader had formed an executive whose predominant features are Europeanism and feminism, with eleven women among his seventeen ministers – a record. And what’s more, a government with many prestigious figures, with extensive political careers behind them. It is a progressive government but includes several politicians that Ciudadanos and PP can also like: first of all the minister of the interior, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, and the foreign minister, Josep Borrell. It is a government promising “democratic regeneration, financial stability, respect for commitments to the European Union and territorial coexistence” – a welcome stance for Brussels at a time of great difficulty for the EU. The fine words have already turned into deeds: the two NGO refugee ships, Aquarius and Open Arms, refused entry to Italian ports by the new right wing government, were allowed to enter Spanish ports. The Sánchez government has been well received by the public and the Social Democrats are leading in the polls, something unimaginable a few weeks ago.

However, the Achilles heel of the Sánchez government is its weakness in Parliament.  It has a mere 85 deputies in the Cortes of Madrid, while an absolute majority would require 176. He will therefore have to look for support, as was the case in the motion of censure that toppled Rajoy, of no less than seven political formations: not only Unidos Podemos, the Valencians of Compromís and the confluences linked to the party of Pablo Iglesias (En Comú Podem; En Marea), which add up 71 deputies, but also, and above all, the Basque nationalists (the five of the PNV and the two of the abertzal left of EH Bildu) and the Catalan independents (the nine of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya and the eight of the Partit Demòcrata Europeu Catalá). The margin is very tight. It is one thing to get everyone on board to get rid of Rajoy; it is quite another to pass a budget or to solve the Catalan crisis.

One of the main uncertainties is the duration of Sánchez´s government. He wants to get through to the end of the legislative session in 2020. There will be two key moments to accomplish this: the approval of the new budget for 2019 and, above all, the elections next spring, not only for members of the European Parliament, but also in all the municipalities in thirteen of seventeen regions. This will offer a pointer to where Spain´s political future lies.


A desire for détente and dialogue

Quite apart from the propaganda of the right, it cannot really be said that the Sánchez government has made concessions to the Catalan independence movement. The new foreign minister, Josep Borrell, has repeatedly declared himself a hardliner with regard to Spain’s unity: last October he participated in the demonstration by the pro-unionist Societat Civil Catalana. Vice-president Carmen Calvo was responsible for the social democrats´ negotiations with Rajoy to adopt Article 155 of the Constitution, which led to the appointment of a commissioner by the Spanish government to rule Catalonia.

But Sánchez, because of his own convictions, had to move in this way to avoid a dispute within his own party and an even tougher campaign by PP, Ciudadanos and a large part of Spanish public opinion. The Catalan independence parties resent Sanchez´s policy, especially as they did not vote in favour of Sánchez, but against Rajoy. And they do not expect much from the new government. In reality, however, if we ignore the obligatory public speeches, in this first month we have seen the first signs of a clear desire for détente and dialogue on the part of the Spanish government.

First of all, the leaders of both sides have changed. Rajoy and Puigdemont are no longer in office, although the former Catalan president influences the government of the Catalonia from his German “exile”. Sánchez and Torra find themselves unexpectedly in roles they would never have imagined playing. Secondly, the tone has changed: although no one has altered their position. The social democrats stress the need to respect the Spanish Constitution and Catalan Statute of Autonomy; the Catalans claim Catalonia´s right to self-determination -, yet there is plenty of support for dialogue.  Sánchez and Torra will be meeting on July 9th.

But that’s not all. Sánchez has made a number of appointments that would favour reconciliation. These are crucial roles in relations with Catalonia, taking into account the punitive judicial events involving members of the previous Catalan government. A positive move was the Madrid government’s decision to transfer detained independence leaders to Catalan prisons managed directly by the Catalan government – Oriol Junqueras, Carme Forcadell, Jordi Sánchez, Jordi Cuixart, Josep Rull, Jordi Turull, Raül Romeva, Dolors Bassa and Joaquim Forn. Very small steps, no doubt, but  light years away from Rajoy´s government.

So far, these are gestures. What, however, can the Sánchez government do in practice? The federal reform of the constitution is unthinkable at present. It would be risky as well as irresponsible: the necessary consensus is lacking and the people, but also Ciudadanos, would oppose any change that is not aimed at re-centralisation. What Sánchez is proposing is to lay the foundations for a future update of the consitution in a future legislature. In short, he is opening up scenarios for the future, as well as encouraging dialogue and facilitating “institutional normalisation”.

There is not much more that can be done in the short term. There will be talk of possible increased funding for Catalonia, particularly in terms of infrastructure, of possible greater fiscal autonomy and of recovering the laws passed by the Catalan parliament over the past three years and suspended by the Constitutional Court at the request of the Rajoy government. There will also be a proposal to re-establish the Statute of Autonomy in the version approved in referendums by the Catalans in 2006. Judicial issues are in the hands of the courts, however, and in particular of the magistrate, Pablo Llarena. So Sánchez cannot release the independence leaders from prison or terminate the trials, although they are calling for this in Barcelona. However, the change in ministerial leadership and openness for dialogue on the part of the new state prosecutor-general will influence how the judges will handle the whole affair from now on.


What about Barcelona?

Rather more subtle messages aimed at dialogue have also come from Barcelona. President Torra has said on several occasions that he is open to talking about everything, although he has stressed that this does not mean that he is renouncing unilateralism and disobedience.

But there are many signs that we can hope for a real dialogue. First of all, there are members of the Catalan government who are former members of the social democrat party, such as the new Councillor for Foreign  and Institutional Relations, Ernest Maragall, brother of Pasqual, former mayor of Barcelona at the time of the Olympics, who recently joined Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC). That may lead to some détente, in view of their long-standing relations with the former social democrat Catalan leaders. It is no coincidence that Mr Maragall is one of the heads of the bilateral committees between the Catalan parliament and the Spanish government that have been reactivated in recent days.

Secondly, among those fighting for independence, the pragmatists won a first battle against the intransigents: both the ERC and a large part of the Partit Demòcrata Europeu Catalá (PDeCAT) defended the vote in favour of Sánchez in the motion of censure, clashing with the opinion of Puigdemont and his movement, Junts per Catalunya (JxCAT), who preferred to abstain. Puigdemont, still in Germany awaiting a decision by the German judges on the request for extradition by the Spanish judiciary, purportedly would have preferred Rajoy to continue in Madrid: his strategy was to maintain the clash with the Spanish government, by creating an international consensus that Spain is a non-democratic country comparable with Turkey and Poland, and causing new elections to be brought forward into the autumn – when the trials of the independence leaders will take place – or at the latest in spring 2019. Torra was chosen for this very reason, as a “vicar president” while awaiting the return of a triumphant Puigdemont, the so-called “legitimate president”.

The change of government in Madrid has displaced the former Catalan president, giving an unexpectedly pivotal role to Torra and allowing him to return to game the sectors of independence, such as ERC and PDeCAT, which did not share the strategy of Puigdemont. An important role will be played by the parliamentary groups at the Spanish Cortes by the two parties, in which Puigdemont and JxCAT have very little influence. What is more, the position of Brussels has not changed. If the EU institutions had supported Rajoy even after the indiscriminate use of force and the punitive incarceration of several independence leaders, they will now support Sánchez even more, who in a few weeks became a beacon of hope for progressive Europeanism, as we saw at the meeting of the European Council on June 28th/29th.

Anyway, it will not be easy. There are many unknowns about Torra; there are many Puigdemont supporters in the Catalan government and in the Parliament of Barcelona – and they could push back against détente: the radical sectors within the heterogeneous independence front are vociferous. The Catalan National Assembly (ANC) has already condemned any “step backwards” with respect to the unilateral path, while the anti-capitalists of the Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP) – which enabled the election of Torra and whose votes are essential in the Catalan Parliament – have reiterated that they will only support measures aimed at a definitive break with the Spanish state. Then we must not lose sight of the constant struggle for hegemony in the nationalist space: no one will risk being accused of betraying the cause with the 2019 election round the corner. Everyone is jockeying for position. The main objective is to conquer Barcelona, governed by Ada Colau of Barcelona en Comú , which according to current polls would lead the municipal government for a second legislative session.

The path is therefore very narrow and fraught with dangers for Sánchez and for those in Barcelona who are also in favour of dialogue.  The irritation factor among part of the Catalan population is great and there are many who would like to see the social-democratic train derailed – Ciudadanos and the PP, no doubt, but also Puigdemont and the sectors close to him in the independence front. This was also seen in the recent visit by King Philip VI to Tarragona for the opening of the Mediterranean Games, which Torra eventually attended after having harshly criticised the monarchy for not maintaining its neutrality between Spain and Catalonia; or in the clash between the president of the Generalitat and the Spanish Ambassador Morenés in Washington during the presentation of the Smithsonian Folklife festival, in which Catalonia is one of the cultures invited.

The decision of the German courts on the extradition of Puigdemont will weigh heavily. We will see if  there is any foundation for a resolution of a crisis that has turned Spanish institutions and  the political system upside down. The meeting between Sánchez and Torra on July 9th will be crucial from this point of view, though not much concrete can be expected. As the Spanish vice-president Carmen Calvo said, the aim is to promote open, frank and unrestricted dialogue. This is no small matter, bearing in mind the situation last autumn, with a unilateral declaration of independence and the imposition of a regional commissioner by the Spanish state.



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