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Spanish PM lines up with Socialists in bid to block Catalan independence vote

Rajoy also in talks with Ciudadanos as regional leaders fail to settle on date for planned referendum

Barcelona / Madrid

The conservative Popular Party (PP) government of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is working with the Socialists (PSOE) and the center-right party Ciudadanos in an attempt to forge a united front against plans on the part of the regional government of Catalonia to stage an independence referendum – a vote Madrid strongly opposes, and which it has attempted to block in the Constitutional Court.

Spanish Prime Minster Mariano Rajoy.
Spanish Prime Minster Mariano Rajoy.

Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría held high-level talks with Cuidadanos leader Albert Rivera two weeks ago on the issue, and on Monday Rajoy spoke to recently reinstated Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez in a meeting that saw the two politicians in strong agreement on the need to defend the Spanish Constitution and stop the Catalan vote from going ahead.

Under the Constitution, national sovereignty resides with all Spaniards.

Catalan Premier Carles Puigdemont leads fellow Catalan political leaders outside the regional congress on Monday.
Catalan Premier Carles Puigdemont leads fellow Catalan political leaders outside the regional congress on Monday. ATLAS

While the Spanish government is keeping tight-lipped about possible future developments, Rajoy is already planning a round of talks with leaders of those parties that share the government’s position on the referendum issue. On Monday, Sánchez repeated his call for the issue to be discussed in Congress.

Meanwhile, pro-independence parties in the Catalan regional parliament on Monday met to discuss how they would proceed in the face of mounting opposition from Madrid. On Sunday, the government of Spain’s Catalonia region said it would announce a date for the vote within 15 days and reveal the question that would be asked of Catalans, but Monday’s talks did not produce any deal.

Madrid’s response has fallen short of expectations

Neus Munté, Catalan government spokeswoman

Sunday’s announcement came just one day after secessionist groups had urged the regional premier, Carles Puigdemont, to disclose details about a project that is pitting the Catalan government against Madrid, where the central government opposes the idea of a unilateral referendum.

On Sunday, Catalan government spokeswoman Neus Munté told Catalan regional radio station RAC-1 that the date and content of the unilateral referendum will be announced within the next two weeks.

She justified this move citing Madrid’s “refusal” to negotiate a legal referendum that all parties could accept. Rajoy’s position throughout the Catalan nationalists’ independence drive has been that Spanish Congress must approve a referendum on self-rule, as its outcome affects all Spaniards, not just Catalans.

This was his attitude when Catalonia held an earlier, non-binding vote on November 9, 2014. The regional premier at the time, Artur Mas, was later tried for his role in organizing what the courts deemed to be an illegal consultation, and barred from office for two years.

Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy speaking at the Economic Circle summit in Sitges.
Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy speaking at the Economic Circle summit in Sitges.

Seven months ago, his successor Puigdemont promised his supporters a new referendum for late 2017. But his foot-dragging when it came to the specifics had been worrying secessionists in the region.

With this latest announcement, Puigdemont is seeking to drum up new interest in the referendum at a time when opinion polls show the lowest support for the independence cause since the process began.

The regional premier has also declined Madrid’s invitation to come and discuss his plans in Spanish Congress. The Catalan government, for its part, says that Rajoy refused an offer to negotiate the referendum. The Spanish PM says it is not up to him to negotiate such a procedure, but up to Congress.

Munté described Madrid’s attitude toward the referendum as a case of “I can’t and I won’t,” and: “We’re the ones calling the shots around here.”

“We would have liked for the referendum conditions to have been shared with the government, but its response has fallen short of expectations with regard to the majority’s proposal in Catalonia,” said Munté.

Neither the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) nor the reform party Ciudadanos, which opposes secession, have been asked to the Monday meeting of Catalan parties.

PSC leader Miquel Iceta said the referendum plan is “unilateral and illegal” and that “insisting on going down this road is to head directly for the rocks.”

Like a Brexit for Spain

Javier Casqueiro

Any remaining hopes for an agreement between Madrid and Barcelona were dashed over the weekend, when Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Catalonia’s Carles Puigdemont both gave talks at a political and economic summit organized by the think-tank Círculo de Economía in Sitges.

Speaking at the close of the summit on Saturday to an audience that included some of Catalonia’s most-influential business leaders, Rajoy compared Catalan secession with Brexit, and said that “it would be a traumatic experience with terrible economic consequences.” He supported his economy minister’s theory that Catalonia would lose 30% of its GDP.

A significant majority of Spaniards (77%) feels that the Rajoy administration has not handled the Catalan territorial crisis adequately. This figure shoots up to 96% among residents of Catalonia, according to a survey by the pollster Metroscopia. This negative view of the government’s actions is spread across voters from all parties, including those from the ruling Popular Party (PP).

Following his re-election, Rajoy launched Operation Dialogue – an effort to improve relations with Barcelona following a strained period that included Mas’s trial over the 2014 independence vote.

But despite increased contact and announcement of upcoming investment in the region, relations have soured even more.

English version by Susana Urra.

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