Pedro Sánchez Jens Stoltenberg
Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez and NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg attend the NATO summit in Madrid, June 28 (NATO)

Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez has found a new excuse for not talking with Catalan leaders: they don’t want to talk with him.

Catalan lawmaker Gabriel Rufián, whose Republican Left usually votes with Sánchez’ left-wing government, asked the prime minister in Congress when the negotiations he promised at the start of his term would resume. Sánchez argued they could only continue if Together for Catalonia, the region’s second-largest independence party, rejoined the negotiating table.

But the reason Together walked out is that Sánchez has delayed negotiations for two-and-a-half years.

Sánchez hasn’t kept his word

Sánchez was elected in 2019 with the support of Catalan nationalists. His own Socialists and left-wing ally Podemos (We Can) fell 21 seats short of a majority, which regional parties from the Basque Country, Canary Islands and Catalonia were able to provide.

In return for their support, Sánchez promised to pardon the organizers of the 2017 Catalan independence referendum, who had been imprisoned for leading an attempted breakaway from Spain, and restore official dialogue between the regional Catalan and national Spanish governments.

He made good on the first promise, but Catalan and Spanish ministers have only met twice, and only to exchange demands and red lines. You might call this “dialogue”, but there haven’t been negotiations.

First Sánchez blamed coronavirus for the delay. Then Russia invaded Ukraine. Then energy prices rose. Then truckers went on strike, causing shortages in supermarkets. Every time Sánchez had a new excuse. Eventually Together for Catalonia, which governs the region in a coalition with the Republican Left, gave up and walked away.

What the negotiations are about

The negotiations are meant to hash out overlapping competencies between Catalan and Spanish authorities, for example in health care and infrastructure.

In addition, Catalans want Spain to hand over fifty powers they were promised in the 2006 autonomy statute, which range from labor law to maritime rescue.

Sánchez has devolved just one of those powers: the awarding of university scholarships.

He has made no proposals to devolve powers beyond the autonomy statute, such as giving Catalans the same fiscal autonomy as the Basques or making Catalan home rule irrevocable.

The Spanish government deposed Catalan leaders after the controversial 2017 referendum and ruled the region from Madrid for six months. It was the first time since the restoration of Spanish democracy that a region lost its autonomy.

Sánchez has refused to reform the antiquated sedition law under which the organizers of the referendum could be convicted in 2019. (Most European countries have abolished sedition as a crime. Amnesty International and the Council of Europe have urged Spain to do the same, because it can be abused to criminalize dissent.)

Sánchez has also refused to countenance a legal referendum on Catalan independence.

Others take the initiative

In the absence of central government action, other Spanish institutions more hostile to Catalan interests have taken the initiative: the courts, its spies and the treasury.

In November, the Supreme Court mandated that 25 percent of Catalan education must be provided in Castilian. The law merely stipulates that Catalan schools must be bilingual. By far most are, but a few schools teach exclusively in Catalan, prompting a lawsuit that found its way to Spain’s highest court, which then invented a language quota.

In March, Spain’s Constitutional Court overturned a Catalan rent-control law, which was enacted during the pandemic to freeze, and in some cases lower, rents. Housing policy is one of the areas in which Catalan and Spanish competencies overlap, in which case the courts give precedence to Spanish law.

In April, Citizen Lab, a nonprofit based in the University of Toronto, Canada, revealed that 65 prominent Catalans, including the president of the region and its members of the European Parliament, had been targeted or infected with an Israeli-made spyware that is sold only to governments. Although Spain’s National Intelligence Center would not confirm all allegations, its director resigned.

In May, the Spanish treasury reported that it spent only 35 percent of its 2021 budget for Catalonia: €740 million out of €2 billion.

Catalans have complained for years that the central government underspends in the region. In per-capita terms, central government investment in Catalonia is the third-lowest out of 17 regions. Previous, conservative governments simply denied it. Sánchez blamed COVID-19 (again).

But the pandemic did not prevent overspending in Madrid. The capital region was allocated €1.3 billion in 2021. It received €2.1 billion.

This too is a pattern: central government agencies, based in Madrid, consistently spend more money in the region than Congress allocates.

Why Sánchez won’t negotiate

The real reason Sánchez won’t negotiate is probably that he knows concessions to Catalans would be unpopular in other parts of Spain.

50 percent of Catalans feel their region has too little autonomy. Only 35 percent are satisfied with the status quo. In the rest of Spain, the numbers are reversed: half believe Catalonia has too much power. 38 percent would weaken or revoke home rule.

Anti-Catalan feelings are strongest in the south, the poorer half of Spain. Sánchez’ Socialists long had their base there, but, like social democrats elsewhere, they have lost working-class voters to the right.

In the election in June, support for the Socialists in Andalusia fell to an all-time low of 24 percent. The conservatives, who oppose all concessions to Catalans, placed first with 43 percent. The far-right Vox (Voice), which would cancel Catalan autonomy, took 13.5 percent.

All Sánchez had to do for that was pardon nine separatists who were convicted of crimes that aren’t crimes in other European countries and give Catalonia control over its own scholarships. Imagine the reaction if he would, say, honor Spain’s sixteen year-old promises.

Sánchez’ term expires in December 2023. National polls give him 23 to 25 percent support, down from 28 percent in 2019. The conservatives are ahead with 30 percent. They would need Vox to form a right-wing government, which could only be worse for Catalonia.

But if the alternative, the Socialists, are unwilling to make things better, what democratic recourse is left to Catalan nationalists, who represent half the voters in their region?


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