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Spanish government fears approach to Catalan independence may end in failure

The Socialist Party administration has made a series of gestures to appease pro-secession parties, but the efforts could have been in vain if its budget plan is rejected

For years, former Popular Party (PP) Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy heard the same mantra. It came not only from supporters of Catalan independence, but also from other sectors in the northeastern region and indeed across Spain: “Make a move, engage in politics.” That was the advice he was given when it came to how he should deal with the secessionist drive in Catalonia, a movement that culminated in 2017 with an illegal referendum and a subsequent declaration of independence in the regional parliament.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. EFE

Plagued by corruption cases in his party, Rajoy was ousted from power in the summer of 2018, thanks to a motion of no confidence won by Pedro Sánchez of the Socialist Party (PSOE). Since he has been prime minister, Sánchez has been promising to seek “political solutions to a political problem” when it comes to Catalonia. An additional problem that Sánchez faces, however, is that he relies on the support of pro-independence parties in Congress to get anything done – the PSOE counts on just 84 seats in Spain’s lower house, with 176 votes needed for a majority in the 350-seat chamber.

Eight months after Sánchez came to power, all of the efforts that have been made by the government to improve the situation with Catalonia, and decisions taken in spite of their political cost – including a draft budget that is very favorable to the region – could serve for nothing if, in the end, the pro-Catalan independence groups Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the Catalan European Democratic Party (PDeCAT) vote against the budget plan on February 13.

Sánchez’s budget plan includes a sharp rise in investment in Catalonia, up from 13% to 18%

On Monday of this week, the two groups announced that they would indeed veto the budget plan entirely if the government did not make some kind of gesture in favor of the politicians and pro-independence leaders who will shortly be facing trial in the Supreme Court for their actions related to the secessionist drive. These defendants have been in pre-trial custody since late 2017.

The political cost for the PSOE of negotiating with the pro-independence parties is so high in some areas of Spain that regional party chiefs and mayors have conveyed their opinion to the government that it would be better if the budget plan did not make it through Congress. This would help end what has been described as the “submission” of the PSOE to the pro-independence forces by the PP, center-right party Ciudadanos (Citizens) and far-right group Vox, the latter of which garnered surprising levels of support in the recent Andalusian elections, something that is expected to be repeated in upcoming elections.

But the government has decided to go all in on its strategy, and is not giving up the battle on the basis that the threatened veto could be withdrawn at the last minute. It is, however, risking a disastrous defeat should the budget plan not be passed.

Jailed Catalan secession leaders being transferred to Madrid for trial.
Jailed Catalan secession leaders being transferred to Madrid for trial.

The upcoming trial of the pro-independence leaders – including former deputy regional premier Oriol Junqueras of the ERC – is the issue complicating any negotiations between the central government and pro-independence groups. The images seen this last week of the defendants being transferred in prison vans from Catalonia to Madrid has sent shockwaves through supporters of independence, according to politicians from the sector consulted by EL PAÍS.

In order to alleviate the situation, the government took a symbolic step that it thought would bear fruit. The solicitor general’s office – which is under the direct control of the central government – is seeking charges for the defendants of sedition and not rebellion. Evidence will be presented during the trial that the declaration of independence was never put into effect and there was no armed violence during the pro-secession drive. This could steer the court proceedings toward such a sentence, which carries lower prison terms. While the public prosecutor – over which the government has no direct influence – is seeking 25 years for Junqueras for rebellion and misuse of public funds, the Solicitor General’s Office has called for Junqueras to get 12 years and be handed a 12-year ban on holding public office.

But the pro-independence groups have always considered this gesture to be insufficient and even aggressive, given that the Solicitor General’s Office did not simply limit itself to charges of misuse of public funds, and included the offense of sedition. The government insists that the opposite is the case, and that this was a softer option in a very complex trial.

There is the possibility of a “Super Sunday,” when Spaniards would vote in local, regional, general and European elections

Over time, the central government of Pedro Sánchez has consistently upped its efforts to win over the supporters of Catalan independence, assuming ever higher costs – although always with the red lines of rejecting any kind of referendum on independence and respecting the autonomy of the public prosecutors. Any interference with the state attorneys’ approach, the government believes, would have an adverse effect on the situation. The gestures have all been made in small doses, but when taken as a whole they show just how far Sánchez has been prepared to take the situation, despite the political cost, in order to gain the trust of the pro-secessionist parties.

Not only were bilateral commission meetings restarted, but also appeals of unconstitutionality were withdrawn, in line with the demands of the Catalan regional government. What’s more, the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) has even offered its support for the regional budget – a very risky move for its leader, Miquel Iceta.

Sánchez’s budget plan includes a sharp rise in investment in Catalonia, up from the 13% of the total seen in the last year that Rajoy was in power, to 18%, thus fulfilling a long-standing demand of the pro-independence parties. The central government has also assumed the cost of proposing the creation of “cross-party talks to come up with a political proposal on the future of Catalonia.”

Pro-secession activists hurled trash at courtrooms to show opposition to the upcoming trial.
Pro-secession activists hurled trash at courtrooms to show opposition to the upcoming trial.

The current situation is now a question of perspective. For the pro-independence parties, such a proposal would be meaningless if it is limited to the Catalan parties, as the central government is suggesting, because such a move has been tried before and it failed given the rejection of the PP and Ciudadanos, and the internal divisions of the nationalists. For the opposition, such talks amount to political ammunition, given that they add weight to their arguments that Sánchez will do anything in order to hang onto power.

Pro-independence sources consulted by EL PAÍS insist that a decision on whether to veto the budget plan has not been taken and that this weekend there will be a lot of internal debate. The internal battles between ERC and PDeCAT and the dates of the vote – amendments to the budget will be voted on the day after the trial of the pro-independence leaders begins – mean that the result will be uncertain.

Those most in favor of allowing the budget plan to be passed – who are, above all, to be found among the deputies from ERC and PDeCAT – are calling on the government to come up with an “imaginative final proposal” in order to break the deadlock before February 13. From La Moncloa prime ministerial palace they insist that they have already done everything that they can.

Members of the government are starting to fear that sectors within the independence movement who believe that they would actually be stronger if there was a central government in power made up of a coalition of the PP and Ciudadanos, with the support of far-right group Vox, may get their wish. “This would lead to a factory of independence supporters, just like in the last years of [former PP Prime Minister José María] Aznar,” explains a member of the central government.

But within the PSOE, there is the belief that if the pro-independence forces reject the budget on the first vote, the narrative that Sánchez can rely on will be easy to manage: he tried everything, but without crossing his own red lines, and that is why the budget has not been passed. This would be the best scenario for many regional leaders and mayors from the party.

Could the government survive a defeat like this one? The finance minister, María Jesús Montero, has already stated that there will be a general election in 2019. There is even the possibility of a so-called “Super Sunday” – with such a vote taking place in May on the same day that Spaniards are scheduled to vote in the regional, municipal and European Union polls. For now the official stance of La Moncloa is that there will be no such general election on that day. “Right now all of the numbers suggest that the three right-wing parties [PP, Ciudadanos and Vox] would have the support [to win power], so it doesn’t seem to be the best time,” explains one member of the government. “We are still going to try to get the budget through.”

From Catalonia, the messages are very mixed, and the central government is not sure what to believe. But there is just one week to go for it to find out whether the bottomless pit that is the negotiations with the pro-independence parties has served for something, or whether they have been a complete waste of time.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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