November 28, 2019

How Catalonia Remains a Thorn in Spanish Politics


By Charles Penty | Bloomberg 

November 26, 2019 at 4:08 p.m. GMT+5:30

It’s been two years since Catalonia’s then-government tried to stage a breakaway from Spain and riot police clamped down on an illegal independence referendum. In October, the Spanish Supreme Court handed down stiff jail sentences to some of the leaders of that effort. The result was a wave of outrage that pulsed through Catalan cities during a week of rioting. As acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez tries to piece together a new government after elections in November, the Catalan question remains at the heart of Spain’s fractured politics, sharpening animosities and polarizing public opinion.

1. What happened at the Catalan trial?

Key figures in the Catalan independence movement were convicted for their part in the events of 2017 when the regional government made an illegal attempt to declare independence. The televised proceedings transfixed Spain as a dozen separatist leaders, including former regional Vice-President Oriol Junqueras, faced a panel of Supreme Court judges. On Oct. 14, the court sentenced Junqueras to 13 years in jail for sedition and misuse of public funds and imposed terms of between nine and 12 years for eight other leaders. While global news media focused on the Oct. 1 referendum as the flashpoint, the court sentence pointed first to a Catalan Parliament law that declared the region free of Spanish jurisdiction, governance and taxation. The legislation, published 23 days before the vote, declared sovereign ownership over airspace, subsoil and coastline without mentioning any responsibility for Catalonia’s portion of Spain’s $1.2 trillion of government debt.

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2. What was the reaction to the verdict in Catalonia?

Socialist leader Sanchez urged Catalan nationalists not to turn violent, but the verdicts sparked immediate protests across Catalonia as well as a large counter-demonstration in Barcelona by supporters of a unified Spain. The Catalan government said the verdicts were a historic error and called on the international community to help resolve the “conflict” with Spain. Even FC Barcelona, the city’s soccer club, called for dialogue so that the leaders can be released. Meanwhile, its league match with Real Madrid, known as “El Clasico,” was postponed amid concern about political unrest.

3. What’s been the impact on national politics?

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The biggest winner was Vox, which had called for a hard-line crackdown on the separatists. The Spanish nationalist party more than doubled its result in November’s election to become the third-biggest force in parliament. The big loser was Ciudadanos, a formerly centrist party that had shifted to the right over Catalonia and found itself outflanked on that issue by Vox -- pragmatic voters withdrew their support in droves. One winner was Podemos, an anti-austerity group that lost seats in the November vote but immediately sealed a political pact with Sanchez as he tried to cement a left-wing coalition in the face of the far-right surge.

4. How will it affect forming a new government?

Sanchez relied on the votes of separatists to overthrow his predecessor Mariano Rajoy of the People’s Party in a confidence vote in 2018. The math of the political deadlock means he needs them again to be able to form a government, even though he has repeatedly said he’d prefer to work with parties that actually support Spain’s constitution. That leaves Esquerra Republicana, the party led by Junqueras, holding the key to unlock Sanchez’s chances of staying on as prime minister -- even though its leader remains behind bars.

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5. How do Catalan local politics affect this situation?

While the jail terms handed down for Junqueras and others certainly enraged separatist voters, Esquerra takes a more gradual approach to separatism than the other main pro-independence party, Junts per Catalunya. Esquerra’s 13 national parliamentary deputies may opt to support Sanchez in the knowledge that they’ll get better treatment from his Socialists than a People’s Party reliant on the support of Vox. Even so, pledging support for a Spanish premier who didn’t intervene when its leader was jailed could come at a cost for Esquerra. Any development that brings the policies of rival separatist groups into focus -- a regional election for example -- would put pressure on the party. It could also deal a blow to Sanchez, who needs Esquerra’s acquiescence and remains a hostage to the region’s volatile politics.

6. How is the independence movement faring?

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It’s been beset by infighting for the past two years. The regional government is run by Joaquim Torra of Junts per Catalunya, a die-hard separatist. He took charge in 2018 after the former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont fled Spain and pro-independence parties won a slim majority in a regional election at the end of 2017. Notwithstanding the jail sentences, there seems little appetite within the broader movement to pursue independence immediately. In a sign of some willingness to ease tensions, Spain’s King Felipe VI braved protests to attend a prize-giving ceremony in Barcelona at which his 14-year-old daughter, Princess Leonor, made a speech in perfect Catalan.

7. What’s the way out of this mess?

The Catalan dispute has plagued Spain off and on for more than three centuries, so it’s naive to bet on easy solutions. The separatists want an independent state that would have an economy as large as Finland’s or Portugal’s. Spain is determined to hold onto a region it sees as integral to national unity and that contributes a fifth of its output. Sanchez has said he wants to explore ways to expand Catalonia’s powers without allowing an official referendum on secession. He sees dialogue as the way forward, while refusing to countenance any breakup of Spanish territory. For now, the forces of Catalan independence retain their slight advantage in the regional parliament. However, the Catalan government’s own polls show there is no majority in favor of a split, and support for independence has been trending downward in 2019.

--With assistance from Todd White.

To contact the reporter on this story: Charles Penty in Madrid at cpenty@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ben Sills at bsills@bloomberg.net, Andy Reinhardt, Grant Clark

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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