Analysis

Separatist Hardliners to Quit Catalan Government

The Spanish prime minister has exhausted their patience.

Pere Aragonès
Catalan president Pere Aragonès speaks at a distribution center in Oliana, Spain, July 22 (Generalitat de Catalunya)

Members of Catalonia’s ruling center-right party have voted to quit the government. Both ruling parties — Together for Catalonia on the right and the Republicans on the left — want independence from Spain. They disagree about how to achieve it.

56 percent of Together’s 6,500 members voted to end the coalition. 79 percent took part in the vote, which was called after regional president, and Republican party leader, Pere Aragonès fired his Together deputy, Vice President Jordi Puigneró.

Neither man revealed the details of their dispute, but the Republicans and Together have been at odds for months. The former want to give talks with the Spanish government, which is also center-left, a chance. Together has lost what little faith they had in Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.

Sánchez has been slow to keep his word

The Republicans voted to give Sánchez a second term in 2019. The social democrat promised to pardon the organizers of the 2017 Catalan referendum, “dejudicialize” the Catalan issue and restore official dialogue between the governments in Barcelona and Madrid.

He did pardon the nine separatists who were convicted of sedition for organizing the independence referendum, including the former Republican party leader, Oriol Junqueras, who was the region’s minister of economy and finance at the time.

The promise to dejudicialize the conflict had proved harder to keep. A year ago, Spain’s Supreme Court invented a Castilian (Spanish) language quota of 25 percent for Catalan schools. In March, the Constitutional Court overturned a Catalan rent-control law.

Housing policy is one of the areas in which Catalan and national competencies overlap. The point of official “dialogue” was to hash out such ambiguities. Of the few meetings that have taken the place, the most concrete result has been to give Catalonia the right to award university scholarships.

Fiscal autonomy would satisfy many Catalans

Sánchez has made no proposals to give Catalonia more autonomy, which I’ve argued for years is the breakthrough needed to bring separatists and unionists together. Polls suggest two-thirds of Catalans would be happy with more self-government.

One source of frustration is that Spain taxes Catalan incomes and sends a smaller share back to the region every year. Not without justification: Catalonia is the richest region of Spain after Madrid and can contribute more than it takes. But previous, conservative governments deliberately withheld investments, for example in Catalan railways, which are another “shared” responsibility.

Infrastructure in the region of Madrid, by contrast, receives more investment from the central government than its contribution to the national economy would seem to justify.

Why not give Catalans the same fiscal autonomy as the Basques? They collect their own taxes and send a share to Madrid.

Abolish sedition as a crime

Another point of contention is the antiquated sedition law under which Junqueras and eight other separatists could be convicted for organizing a referendum.

Most European countries have abolished sedition as a crime, because it can be abused to criminalize dissent. Amnesty International and the Council of Europe have urged Spain to do the same. Sánchez won’t.

Nor will he countenance a legal referendum on Catalan independence.

Unilateralism didn’t work either

So Together’s desperation isn’t hard to understand.

But what is the alternative? Catalonia held a referendum in 2017, but because Spain’s Constitutional Court had outlawed it, unionists stayed home. The subsequently fumbled “declaration of independence” — made, but immediately “suspended” — ushered in direct Spanish rule for the first time since the end of the dictatorship.

Catalan unilateralism provoked a nationalist backlash in the rest of Spain. The conservative People’s Party lurched to the right, arguing for an “indefinite” suspension of Catalan home rule. A far-right party, Vox (Voice), won seats in Congress for the first time on a platform to abolish all regional autonomies. Its support hovers around 15 percent in the polls, which means the People’s Party can’t form a government without it. A right-wing Spanish government, joined or supported by Vox, could only be worse for Catalonia.

Elections then?

Aragonès could cling to power as the leader of a minority government. He might win the support of the Catalan Socialists and En Comú Podem, an alliance of left-wing parties that includes the Catalan branch of Podemos (We Can), which governs with the Socialists nationally.

A left-wing coalition in Catalonia would be an easier partner for the left-wing coalition in Madrid. Perhaps it could finally sort out the many “shared” powers in health care, housing, infrastructure and social security. Although anything that is seen as a concession to Catalans would be opposed by the People’s Party and Vox, who are already on track to win the next Spanish election in 2023.

Early elections in Catalonia are another option, although polls do not hint at a different outcome from the last time. Together is down a few points, but the balance between separatists and unionists hasn’t changed. It hasn’t changed since 2012, when the center-right and the Republicans formed a government for the first time.

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