Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has found a new excuse not to speak with Catalan leaders: they don’t want to speak with him.
Catalan lawmaker Gabriel Rufián, whose Republican left typically votes with Sánchez’s leftist government, asked the prime minister in Congress when negotiations he promised at the start of his term would resume. Sánchez argued that they could only continue if Together for Catalonia, the region’s second pro-independence party, joined the negotiating table.
But the reason Together pulled out was because Sánchez delayed negotiations for two and a half years.
Sánchez did not keep his word
Sánchez was elected in 2019 with the support of Catalan nationalists. His own socialists and left ally Podems (We Can) fell short of the majority that regional parties in the Basque Country, the Canary Islands and Catalonia were able to provide by 21 seats.
In exchange for their support, Sánchez promised to pardon the organizers of the 2017 Catalan independence referendum, who had been imprisoned for leading an attempted break with Spain, and to restore official dialogue between the governments. Catalan regional and Spanish national.
He kept his first promise, but the Catalan and Spanish ministers met only twice, and only to exchange demands and red lines. You could call it “dialogue”, but there were no negotiations.
First Sánchez blamed the coronavirus for the delay. Then Russia invaded Ukraine. Then energy prices rose. Then truckers went on strike, causing shortages in supermarkets. Each 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 are the negotiations about?
The negotiations aim to eliminate overlapping competences between Catalan and Spanish authorities, for example in healthcare and infrastructure.
Moreover, the Catalans want Spain to hand over to them fifty powers promised to them in the 2006 Autonomy Statute, which range from labor law to maritime salvage.
Sánchez delegated only one of these powers: the awarding of university scholarships.
He made no proposals to delegate powers beyond the statute of autonomy, such as giving Catalans the same fiscal autonomy as Basques or making the Catalan internal regime 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 refused to reform the outdated 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, as it can be abused to criminalize dissent.)
Sánchez also refused to endorse a legal referendum on Catalan independence.
Others take the initiative
In the absence of action from the central government, other Spanish institutions more hostile to Catalan interests took the initiative: justice, its spies and the Treasury.
In November, the Supreme Court ordered that 25% of Catalan education be given in Castilian. The law simply states that Catalan schools must be bilingual. Most are by far, but a few schools teach exclusively in Catalan, leading to legal action that ended up in Spain’s highest court, which then invented a language quota.
In March, Spain’s Constitutional Court struck down a Catalan rent control law, which had been enacted during the pandemic to freeze, and in some cases lower, rents. Housing policy is one of the areas where Catalan and Spanish jurisdictions overlap, in which case the courts give precedence to Spanish law.
In April, Citizen Lab, a non-profit organization based at the University of Toronto, Canada, revealed that 65 prominent Catalans, including the region’s president and his members in the European Parliament, had been targeted or infected with a Israeli-made spyware that is sold only to governments. Although Spain’s National Intelligence Center has not confirmed all the allegations, its director has resigned.
In May, the Spanish Treasury announced that it had only spent 35% of its 2021 budget on Catalonia: 740 million euros out of 2 billion euros.
Catalans have been complaining for years that the central government is underspending in the region. Per capita, central government investment in Catalonia is the third lowest of the 17 regions. Previous Conservative governments have simply denied it. Sánchez blamed COVID-19 (again).
But the pandemic hasn’t stopped overspending at Madrid. The capital region received 1.3 billion euros in 2021. It received 2.1 billion euros.
It’s also a trend: Madrid-based central government agencies consistently spend more money in the region than Congress allocates.
Why Sánchez won’t negotiate
The real reason Sánchez won’t negotiate is probably because he knows concessions to the Catalans would be unpopular in other parts of Spain.
50% of Catalans believe that their region has too little autonomy. Only 35% are satisfied with the status quo. In the rest of Spain, the numbers are reversed: half think Catalonia has too much power. 38% would weaken or revoke home rule.
Anti-Catalan feelings are strongest in the south, the poorer half of Spain. Sánchez’s socialists have long had their base there, but, like social democrats elsewhere, they have lost working-class voters to the right.
In the June elections, support for the Socialists in Andalusia fell to a historic low of 24%. The Conservatives, who oppose all concessions to the Catalans, came out on top with 43%. The extreme right Voice (Voice), which would cancel Catalan autonomy, took 13.5%.
All Sánchez had to do for that was to pardon nine separatists who were convicted of crimes that are not crimes in other European countries and give Catalonia control of its own scholarships. Imagine the reaction if he wanted to, say, honor Spain’s sixteen-year promises.
Sánchez’s term expires in December 2023. National polls give him 23-25% support, down from 28% in 2019. The conservatives lead with 30%. They would need Voice form a right-wing government, which could only be worse for Catalonia.
But if the alternative, the Socialists, does not want to fix things, what democratic recourse is left to the Catalan nationalists, who represent half of the voters in their region?