May 26, 2021

Europe

SPAIN: Playing for time in Catalonia (and Madrid)

BY Antonio Barroso

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Following a deal between two secessionist parties, a new government was sworn in last week in the region of Catalonia. Despite the hardline rhetoric of new regional Prime Minister Pere Aragones, another unilateral push for independence remains unlikely. Rather, Aragones will continue trying to extract concessions from Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in exchange for providing his support for the Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE)-Unidas Podemos coalition in the national Congress of Deputies.

Nine days ago, Aragones’ Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) party and Together (Junts) reached an agreement to form a regional administration and avoid a repeat election. In snap polls, secessionist parties could potentially have lost the majority they obtained in the last election, which they deem to be symbolically crucial. But the government formation negotiations have shown that ERC and Junts continue to disagree fundamentally on what direction the push for independence should take. Specifically, ERC wants to have a free hand to negotiate with the central government and build support for independence in the long run, while Junts seems more inclined to pursue a unilateral path.

The continued competition for the hegemony of the secessionist movement explains Aragones’ strong rhetoric during his election speech in the Catalan regional assembly. He stated that his regional government should be able to hold a referendum on self-determination and obtain an amnesty for the secessionist politicians currently in jail within two years. At the same time, he gave little detail on how he planned to achieve those objectives.

In practice, Aragones seems to be playing for time on two fronts. In Catalonia, fixing a vague timeline allows him to claim that he is pushing for independence while reaping the benefits of being the most visible face of the Catalan government. On the national level, he can try to extract concessions from Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, which would allow Aragones to claim that a pragmatic path is the only way ahead for independence. At the same time, Sanchez needs the support of ERC to get legislation passed in parliament.

The first test to this strategy is likely to come soon, as Sanchez is allegedly planning to pardon the secessionist leaders currently in jail despite a Supreme Court’s opinion against the move. Such a decision is likely to carry political costs for Sanchez, as most centrist PSOE voters seem to be opposed to it. The opposition People’s Party (PP) is likely to challenge the pardons in the courts and mount an all-out campaign against the government on the issue. However, Sanchez looks willing to take the short-term pain if that leads to ERC cooperating in the national parliament and the pardons generate a sense of a new start for the Catalonia issue.

Aragones has said he would continue to push for a full amnesty but accept the pardons, which signals his willingness to support the PSOE-Podemos government in the national parliament. The problem is that there might not be much more to negotiate, as authorizing a self-determination referendum would be the electoral death knell for the socialists. Therefore, a key factor to watch regarding the national government’s standing is whether Aragones starts pushing harder for concessions once the effects from the pardons dissipate.