One of my laments about Spain’s inability to resolve the Catalan independence crisis is that it complicates all other political issues in the region.
Catalonia’s pro-independence Republican Left has much in common with the Socialists and other left-wing parties, which want to remain in Spain. The formerly center-right Together for Catalonia now calls itself a big tent, but its economic and fiscal policies are still similar to those of the unionist Citizens and People’s Party. Yet separatists and unionists refuse deals, giving two far-left parties in parliament the balance of power. One is reasonable, the other is not.
The reasonable one, Catalonia in Common (which includes the Catalan branch of Podemos), supports Catalan self-determination but not independence, which is why it can’t join a government that wants to exit Spain.
The even more left-wing Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) is also the most strident separatist party: it would take Catalonia out of Spain tomorrow if it could. It has reliably backed governments of the Republicans and Together for Catalonia, but it has been fickle in its support for their policies.
In 2016, the CUP forced the moderate Artur Mas to stand down as regional president. They accepted Carles Puigdemont as his successor, who the following year threw Catalonia into its worst political crisis since the return of democracy by holding an independence referendum over Spanish objections; heralding the outcome as a mandate to break away, even though unionists didn’t vote; and going into exile when Spain revoked Catalan home rule.
In 2020, the anticapitalists refused to give the larger independence parties a majority for their spending plan. Catalonia in Common staved off the need for snap elections in the middle of the pandemic by giving their support.
The same scenario is playing out this year: Catalonia in Common is willing to vote for the government’s 2022 budget while the CUP refuses to budge on its unreasonable demands.
What CUP wants
- Block the expansion of Barcelona’s El Prat Airport, which is one of the few concessions Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has made to Catalans.
- Cancel the expansion of the Port Aventura theme park in Tarragona.
- Raise tax on incomes between €60,000 and €90,000.
- Revoke the Formula 1 permit of the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in Montmeló.
- Withdraw the Pyrenees-Barcelona bid for the 2030 Winter Olympics.
The Republicans and Together for Catalonia may have been willing to meet some of the CUP’s demands. For example, the expansion of Barcelona airport is opposed by left-wing parties in the city government as well. The Pyrenees-Barcelona bid for the Winter Olympics could be put to a local referendum.
But the CUP demanded all or nothing, and it will probably get nothing.
The “Commons” have played their cards better. They are politically close to the Republicans. Both support Sánchez’ Socialist government in Madrid. A team-up with the Socialists in Catalonia would have made it easier for Sánchez to negotiate transferring more autonomy to the region; a promise he has yet to make good on. Such a pact only failed because the Catalan Socialists, who shared first place with the Republicans in the election, refused to serve under a Republican president.
Now the Commons have another opportunity to pull the government to the left. It’s why Together is holding last-minute talks with the CUP. The CUP may be a nuisance; the long-term threat to center-right separatism is a coalition of the Commons, Republicans and Socialists.
If the Socialists want to get back into power in Catalonia (they have been in opposition since 2010), they need to brave the inevitable opposition in other parts of Spain and meet the separatists halfway. So long as they don’t, the Republicans will prefer unwieldy coalitions with Together and awkward deals with the Commons and CUP.
Similarly, if the Republicans and Together are tired of being held to ransom by radical leftists, they need to say yes if Sánchez makes a reasonable proposal (here‘s what that could look like) rather than hold out hope for independence in the short term.