Catalonia: Sanchez and Pro-Independence Parties Ready for Dialogue
Negotiations between Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and the pro-independence government of Catalonia are set to begin. It represents a symbolic shift in Spain’s polarized environment, which turned hostile on several occasions last year. The UNPO, which has been calling for dialogue between the parties, welcomes this constructive approach.
Although expectations are moderate regarding the outcome of first discussions, Sánchez’ proposal to review the penal code on the crime of sedition is a positive sign of the central government’s willingness to step back from its overbearing criminal justice response in 2019. In this regard, the opening of negotiations represent, at least, a ‘window of opportunity’ for Catalonia.
Below is an article published by Politico
A month into his new tenure, it's crunch time again for Pedro Sánchez.
In order to secure the support he needed to form a government last month, the Spanish prime minister committed himself to negotiating with the pro-independence government of Catalonia and attempting to find a solution to the country's territorial crisis.
The future relationship between the would-be breakaway region and Madrid now hinges on these talks — as does the stability of the new Spanish government.
The negotiations, which will include the secessionist Catalan Republic Left (ERC) and its coalition partner in the Catalan government Together for Catalonia (JxCat), are expected to begin after a meeting between Sánchez and Catalan President Quim Torra on Thursday.
Sánchez’s agreement to engage with the Catalan government signals a change of tack after months of frosty, at times hostile, relations. Last fall, the Socialist leader repeatedly snubbed Torra, in a move many saw as an attempt to convince voters of his unionist credentials ahead of the November election.
However, since winning that vote and forming a new coalition government with the far-left Podemos — and with the parliamentary help of ERC, which agreed to abstain in the investiture vote — Sánchez has softened his tone.
He has repeatedly referred to the Catalan situation as a “political problem” and insisted that a solution will not come from the courts, where several trials linked to the failed independence push of 2017 have put a number of high-profile activists and politicians behind bars.
“These talks are a symbolic but crucial development,” said Josep Lobera, a sociologist at Madrid’s Autonomous University. “This opens up a political space, and without that political space there is only polarization.”
But while Sánchez's assertions may be pleasing to the Catalan government, they have raised the hackles of the right-wing opposition in Madrid, which claims the prime minister is recklessly compromising the unity of Spain in order to remain in power.
Despite the prime minister’s change in rhetoric, fundamental differences between the two camps mean the exact content — and potential outcome — of the talks remains unclear.
ERC says it will enter the negotiations with the aim of asserting Catalonia’s right to self-determination and therefore its right to hold a Scotland-style independence referendum. It also wants to see the release of the nine independence leaders found guilty of sedition and given jail sentences in October for their role in the 2017 bid for secession.
“Our project is very clear,” Catalan Foreign Minister Alfred Bosch, of ERC, told POLITICO. “End the repression, have a referendum so that the people decide. We think ultimately it’s the only way out.”
Sánchez has accepted that any agreement his government reaches with the Catalan administration should be voted on by the region’s people, but he has repeatedly ruled out allowing the region to hold a binding referendum on independence. That is despite the fact that his coalition partner, Podemos, supports Catalonia’s right to self-determination.
“We are very aware that we have many disagreements [with the Catalan government]; there are deep differences,” Sánchez said last month. “They defend self-determination, we defend self-government.”
The prime minister also said that any solution to the crisis has to be found within the framework of the constitution, which does not allow for regions to hold independence votes, and that the government does not consider the jailed Catalan leaders to be political prisoners.
Given the entrenched positions on both sides, the big question is: What is there to discuss, and is an agreement even possible?
According to Francesc-Marc Álvaro, an author and columnist at La Vanguardia newspaper, ERC is treating the upcoming negotiations as the start of a new type of engagement with Madrid in a bid to broaden its appeal to include leftist, non-nationalist parties ahead of a Catalan election expected at some point this year.
“ERC has seen that the unilateral route doesn’t have muscle and it’s not going to work, so their idea is to become a Catalan version of the Scottish National Party,” he said.
That strategy takes into account the weak position of Catalan President Torra, who faces legal action that has already stripped him of his parliamentary seat and whose JxCat party takes a more hard-line approach to Madrid.
With polls showing ERC as the current favorite to win in a regional ballot, Sánchez’s strategy is to play for time. He wants to avoid engaging too heavily with the current, Torra-led Catalan leadership in the short term, said Álvaro, “because he knows there will be elections, and once a new [ERC-controlled] Catalan government is in place it will have the authority to work more directly with the Spanish government.”
Until then, talks are likely to focus on the region’s financial arrangements with Madrid and the possible transfer of some new powers to Barcelona.
A logical conclusion to the talks, from the Spanish government’s point of view, would be to offer Catalonia something akin to the original autonomy statute which the Socialist administration of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero agreed to in 2006. The Constitutional Court’s 2010 decision to overturn some key clauses of that document, at the behest of the conservative Popular Party (PP), is widely seen as being at the root of the current crisis.
There is also evidence that concessions are already being made before negotiations even formally begin.
Several new appointments by Sánchez are likely to improve relations with the Catalan government, including his choice of attorney general, Dolores Delgado.
Although she has come under fire from the right for her checkered tenure as Sánchez’s justice minister Delgado is seen as more moderate on the Catalan issue than her predecessor, María José Segarra. Similarly, the exit last year of former Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, the EU’s new foreign policy chief, was welcomed by Catalan nationalists, whom he frequently riled.
In recent weeks, Madrid has also allowed the Catalan government to reopen some of its foreign delegations, or “embassies,” that Borrell had shut down.
Perhaps most significantly of all, Sánchez has proposed reforming the penal code, including reviewing the crime of sedition. That could feasibly lead to reductions in the stiff jail sentences given to nine independence leaders last year.
Still, the political risks for both sides during these talks will be substantial.
The right is determined to derail Sánchez’s policy of engagement, and some on the right wing of his own party will be unhappy if they feel he is giving too much ground. On the other side of the table, pressure could build on the Catalan government if pro-independence voters believe talks are moving too slowly, for example on judicial reform and other matters related to the jailed leaders.
“The prisoners are an extremely emotionally charged issue for a lot of pro-independence Catalans,” said Lobera. “And that emotional draw is very strong compared to the pragmatic, logical negotiating approach.”
The fragility of these negotiations was underlined recently when the Spanish government suddenly appeared to postpone them by several months, citing the uncertainty caused by the approaching Catalan election, before insisting they will in fact go ahead as previously planned.
If the negotiations fail, both sides are aware that the outcome could be the collapse of Sánchez’s government and yet another general election, carrying with it the possibility of victory for the parties of the right and their aggressive unionism.
With that in mind, ERC, at least, is willing to give Sánchez the benefit of the doubt. “The most hopeful indicator right now is that the attitude has changed — from refusal on the side of the Spanish government to acceptance that we have to hold talks,” said Bosch, Catalonia's foreign minister.
“We’re not over-enthusiastic," he added. "But we believe there’s a window of opportunity.”
Photo: Pau Barrena/AFP via Getty Images