The unhistoric meeting of the new presidents

Today the presidents of Spain and Catalonia will meet for the first time since the referendum. The last time a Catalan president officially met a Spanish prime minister was in April 2016, when Puigdemont met Rajoy for the first and only time, a meeting at which was presented with a 46-point list for discussion, including the all-important referendum. This doubled the number of points on Artur Mas’s list in 2014, which had included the 9 November consultation, after a series of fruitless meetings where a new financial deal for Catalonia was discussed. The response of the Moncloa was not only a refusal to discuss a fiscal deal, a consultation or a referendum, but any of the other points either. The Partido Popular (PP) strategy was always to rely on the process running out of steam. When it didn’t, they decided to crush it by any means necessary.

Pedro Sánchez meets Quim Torra. For 7 years fom 2011, despite 18 formal requests, Rajoy had refused to sit down with the president of the Generalitat unless self-determination was off the table. Now it’s a no-brainer for the leader of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE). He simply has to offer dialogue where none was previously possible, without being seen to give anything away. No one expects any agreement on the Catalan question in the long term, let alone today. Things were so extreme under the PP that a simple cordial meeting will be a relief and a marked improvement, even if ultimately it serves only a purpose. It’s what follows that really matters and most are sceptical about any progress on the Catalan question in the foreseeable future. Sánchez himself has stated that it would take between two and eight years and there are two years at most before the next elections in Spain, which is two years to get himself re-elected and his record in general elections is hardly impressive. That’s not going to inspire pro-independence forces in Catalonia with much confidence that any amount of dialogue will produce significant change in the Spanish government’s position, whatever colour it may be.

On the other hand, he can hardly continue with the policy of the previous Spanish government, toppled by its own arrogance and intransigence, mired in its own corruption, refusing to recognise the legitimate grievances and suffering of its own people, with its offensive attitude to the country’s past, particularly clear in their ignoring of PSOE’s historical memory law, which responds to people’s demands to give hundreds of thousands of missing victims of the civil war and the dictatorship a dignified end with a proper burial. The PP has preferred instead to insist on the 1977 Amnesty Law – the “law of forgetting”. Such contempt was never going to close the wounds of the civil war and Franco’s dictatorship. The law of forgetting is in fact the law of insisting people shut up about the past. In the words of the potential new leader of the PP, Pablo Casado, “it’s not possible to be left-wing in the middle of the 21st century, it’s so old-fashioned! Droning on about grandad’s war, about the common graves of god knows who, about historical memory.” Clear at least whose side Casado would have been on, as if there could be any doubt.

The relief at seeing the back of the PP for the time being at least, shouldn’t fool anyone as to the enormity of the task facing any Spanish premier. The task is the same today as it was during Mr Rajoy’s whisky-soaked farewell dinner when he fell on his sword. Did you ever wonder where the Spanish prime minister was during his conspicuous absence from the debate over his competence to continue leading the country? Rajoy has gone, but what else has changed for the PP? Where is the recognition that they have done anything wrong? Where is the will to reform? For the Spanish right it will be an exercise in damage control until, inevitably in their minds, they get back in. It’s a risky strategy.

At the same time, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the current confrontation between the State and Catalonia began with the demise of the 2006 Statute of Autonomy, initially agreed to under José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s PSOE government, then gradually eroded by the Constitutional Court and eventually reduced to nothing in 2010. Many still see this as a form of ‘coup d’état’. Discussion and negotiation with Catalonia ended here. Rajoy came to power a year later, with the intention of keeping the Catalans’ wings clipped. And no quarter was given right up to his demise a month ago. None of his increasingly rare meetings with any Catalan premier produced any agreement on any issue.

The PP’s disregard for Catalonia’s legitimate grievances is well-known. What many of PSOE’s new “friends” in Europe might not be aware of is how PSOE’s traditional attitude to the nations of Spain has been to pay only lip-service with respect to their sovereign pretensions, while seeing them, especially in the case of Catalonia, to be a real threat to the integrity of Spain. The repression carried out in the Basque country in the name of fighting terrorism has made a dramatic comeback in Catalonia in the past year, this time without the excuse of fighting terrorists. As Felipe González said in Toledo in 1984, “terrorism in the Basque Country is a question of public order, but the real danger is the Catalan differential.” PSOE’s fight against Basque secessionists was as violent and dirty as anything the so-called heirs of Franco, the PP, ever came up with. PSOE has always had its own Francoist vein and its Spanish nationalist credentials are impeccable, whatever the PP and as yet powerless newcomers, Ciudadanos, might want you to believe.

One only has to remember a few of the myriad recent statements made by PSOE ‘barons’ – the grandees – since it all kicked off last September. PSOE’s ex-president of Extremadura, Juan Carlos Rodríguez Ibarra, has said that “Catalonia is the most important problem in the country, more than having a president of the Government” and more recently “the pro-independence movement worries me much more than what the PP has robbed”. Alfonso Guerra, Felipe González’s vice president and right-hand man, has not tired of repeating the narrative that those in favour of independence are fascists and that Puigdemont, and now Torra, are Nazis. Last October, he favoured sending the army into Catalonia, as if the paramilitary police had not been enough. José Bono, ex-president of Castilla-La Mancha and ex-Minister of Defence said on television only yesterday that president Torra “isn’t right [in the head]” and had used “expressions that are closer to Nazi than democratic thinking” in his writing. Like Guerra, he will have to answer for slander in court. Though the texts in question are not considered racist by SOS Racism, Pedro Sánchez was sadly not averse to casting the same aspersions from the time of Torra’s investiture to the no-confidence vote that put Sánchez in the Moncloa.

You get the idea. At best the dinosaurs of Spanish politics can be considered unhelpful. The question is will Pedro Sánchez be able to keep the incendiary regime of ’78 at bay. They’ve never really been fans of his, forcing him to resign the presidency in 2016 after disastrous election results and replacing him with Susanna Díaz, PSOE’s leader in Andalusia. To his credit, he won back the leadership of the party a little over a year ago and now finds himself in the Moncloa. Moreover, many of the PSOE grandees have spoken openly of their penchant for Albert Rivera, Ciudadanos’ Spanish nationalist hardman. Top PP grandee, José María Aznar, has also expressed a weakness for Rivera over the leader of his own party. One wonders if the inevitable lurch to the right that Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría or Pablo Casado will bring will be enough to stop him batting his eyelashes at Rivera. Aznar is another Spanish elder statesman who can’t help interfering.

No new government has a clean slate. New governments inherit situations, and no one should forget the role that PSOE has played in creating the current situation by offering its key support in the application of Article 155 and direct rule. Until some of the wrongs of this support are righted, how can there be any meaningful dialogue? While fellow citizens and professionals are still in jail or exile for their beliefs – no one believes it’s for their crimes – what really is there to talk about? And with each moment that passes with Spanish citizens in jail for who they are, for what they believe in, for what they have said, for many people the abnormal situation becomes normalised. However, each case is a grave breach of human rights. Spain might seem a little less unhinged, but PSOE will play the separation of powers card and leave mad dog Llarena on the loose doing the State’s dirty work until the last possible moment. Judge Llarena, Catalonia’s very own judge, jury and jailor.

And it isn’t only Ciudadanos and the PP that have had the gall to suggest the rebellion and sedition laws be edited again to cover the events of last September and October. Sánchez has voiced the same wish. It’s an implicit admission that Catalan politicians and civil leaders are falsely imprisoned because it’s an admission that the laws, as they stand, are inadequate to prosecute the actions of Catalan politicians and civil leaders during these months. It’s the Spanish state’s own fault. A cross-party group edited them in 1995 to add the conditions of ‘violent’ and ‘tumultuous’ to the concept of ‘uprising’.

Soon we’ll also know the leader of the all-new but very familar-looking Partido Popular (PP) – the ‘new’ element will be how much further right the PP will lurch. Throughout the confrontation it was the far-right in Spain, and Ciudadanos, that badgered Rajoy to go harder on Catalonia. It’s a terrible mistake that PSOE should take advantage of – if they can maintain the centre ground and stave off the challenge from the party with the hardest lines on the process and social policy. Ciudadanos’ simple populist Spanish nationalist message goes down well in Spain, though they find it hard to control that supremacist tic and hide a lack of substance and policy behind the anti-nationalist ticket (Spanish nationalism not included). In short, the PP are a mess, but in denial. Quite incredibly, only 7.6% of their supposed 800,000+ activists voted in the first round of the leadership race.

So what have the new presidents achieved so far in their impossible jobs? With Sánchez’s government the atmosphere has undoubtedly improved in general; that unavoidable optimism when something unbearable ends and something else, anything else, takes its place. Initial appointments were generally well-received for the preponderance of women in the cabinet, but also revealed a lack of forethought. Màxim Huerta as Culture Minister was a ludicrous appointment that saw him out of a job in barely a week. The Minister of Agriculture, Luis Planas, has a cloud hanging over him for his alleged consent of drilling illegal boreholes in the Doñana National Park on his watch. It also brings Josep Borrell out of retirement to fill the post of Foreign Minister. Borrell, lately of Societat Civil Catalana, the anti-independence platform with far-right links, is a clear signal to the secessionists. The historic corruption cases he was involved in are well and truly forgotten. It was actually a tax evasion case that prevented the Catalan leading PSOE. And then there’s Grande Marlaska, accused of doing nothing to prevent torture to extract confessions, amid generalised malpractice by himself and other High Court judges and the police. This led to the collapse of a high profile anti-ETA case in 2014. They are both hardliners regarding regional nationalism in Spain.

So many parties’ support was necessary to bring down Rajoy and their agenda are so varied it seems impossible that Sánchez will have enough sweeteners to go round and the Catalans are the most likely to miss out. PSOE have passed a much needed euthanasia bill, which had already been passed in Catalonia, and they’ve gone to work on the much-awaited and much-needed renewal of RTVE but run into problems finding a consensus candidate. The financial problems, censorship, personnel problems, especially regarding pay parity for women, and embarrassing hispanist revisionism of its director had left the broadcaster in disarray, little more than a mouthpiece for the government. That’s unlikely to change. Every change of government in Spain is marked by a changing of the guard in all public, and many private, institutions.

There are proposed changes to the regulation of rents and house prices. Similar laws passed by the Catalan parliament have been struck down by the Constitutional Court. The welcoming of the refugee ship, the Aquarius, to Spanish shores – among other vessels – sent a positive message to Spain’s European partners, but the non-agreement of an EU policy on the issue of migration in the Mediterranean could leave Spain exposed, with other countries unwilling to help. Pedro Sánchez’s government is already back-pedalling and Spain’s record on the issue in terms of human right’s abuses has been as poor under PSOE governments as under the PP, something PSOE has vowed to change.

The decision to move Franco’s remains from El Valle de los Caidos and a commitment to rebury those interred, as well as the hundreds of thousands of victims of the Franco era that lie in mass common graves all over Spain will be a great relief to many. How quickly and how far the righting of historic wrongs progresses remains to be seen, however. There’s also the issue of the still ubiquitous Francoist symbols and the level of opposition to their removal. And let’s not forget the final act of the PP’s Justice Minister, Rafael Catalá: ensuring the continuity of the Duchy of Franco. I wonder if anything will ever be done about that aberration.

A month is only enough time to send out some signals of intention, one of which is the introduction of new taxes to pay for social reforms. With the Spanish economic timebomb still ticking very loudly and the ECB due to stop buying Spanish debt in September, even more austerity would have been the “logical” course that Mariano Rajoy would have unquestioningly, unblinkingly (figuratively-speaking) taken. More austerity is something that the Spanish people simply cannot take. Higher taxation will not be popular either.

The Catalan government’s most recent act of relevance to today’s meeting was the approval last week of a motion that reiterates its “firm will to carry out the necessary actions envisaged and approved by this Parliament, to achieve and democratically endorse the independence of Catalonia”, reaffirms “the political objectives” of the 9-N consultation resolution, considering it “legitimized by the results of the 1-O referendum and the 21-D elections”. The motion also proposes redeeming fourteen laws struck down by the Constitutional Court with the intention of resubmitting the bills to make them effective. The Spanish government will challenge the motion in the Constitutional Court, as Rajoy’s government did the fourteen mainly social bills the Generalitat wishes to recover.

The total number of laws passed by the Catalan government and struck down by the Constitutional Court since 2006 statute is forty-six. Most have had nothing to do with the independence process. Many have been socially progressive measures unpopular with the majority conservative government in Congress between 2011-2018. The intention was, as it has always been, to stop Catalonia going its own way, within or without Spain. Attempts by the Catalan parliament’s alliance of centre-right, centre-left and left parties to pass progressive social laws were all for nothing as law after law was blocked.

And what of Ciudadanos, largest party in the Catalan parliament? Has their mood improved? They spent another disruptive week in parliament creating confrontation, generally misbehaving, disrespecting the institution and the government, as is their wont. They think that Torra and Sánchez shouldn’t meet until certain conditions decided upon by themselves are met. Everyone knows no concessions will be made today. They never wanted direct rule lifting after all.

Those Catalans who want to see their Republic made effective grow frustrated as they see Esquerra Repúblicana de Catalunya take a step backwards and Junts per Catalunya sending out mixed messages. The main pro-independence parties have decided to play a longer game after a debilitating year. Can they convince their voters of the wisdom of their new approach? Ironically, Ciudadanos pretend to see no change in their rhetoric and scream hysterically about continued unilateralism. They are completely disconnected from reality now, stuck in a loop of aggressive confrontation, dependent on conflict. The Catalans that were ready last September and October to take anything thrown at them to achieve sovereignty – military or otherwise – have not taken the reduction in tension well. Their frustration at the lack of clarity and unity of their leaders and the lack of culmination of their wishes, is considerable. ERC and Junts per Cat would be well-advised not to lose sight of all those residents of Catalonia who rose up, pacifically, in the late summer and early autumn months, and who have been, very tiringly for them, risen up ever since. Whenever grassroots movements gain massie support among ordinary people, they are either crushed or ultimately accepted as engines of change. What happens when their elected representatives are unable or unwilling to deliver what they have repeatedly voted for? Disillusionment is inevitable for many, but as we have seen repeatedly in recent years, this heterogenous movement is able to reinvent itself, with or without its politicians. A period of regrouping and transformation seems likely.

The Spanish government’s policy of first ignoring, then traumatising, and finally grinding down the independentists, keeping them busy with lawfare, underestimates the level of resentment at the events of last autumn, and the sense of rupture and disconnection that already existed before it. The attitude of Catalan unionism hasn’t helped either, not in the parliament and certainly not on the streets. Ordinary people still can’t understand how their family and friends being beaten and their elected representatives imprisoned or exiled can be justified or accepted. The State is engaged in a war of attrition and its intention is to demobilise and disarm. The de-escalation of tension between Barcelona and Madrid and the softening of pro-independence rhetoric are seen as a victory by some and a defeat by others, on both sides of the divide. Most independentists find it hard to live with the lower expectations they are supposed to adopt. You can’t use hard power and not expect people to remember.

And Sánchez, conscious that in Catalonia he can’t get away with giving nothing to the Catalans, is also conscious that giving an inch to the Catalans could result in electoral disaster in Spain, and grief from not only a united PP and Ciudadanos opposition, but also most of his own party, not just “the barons”, and other forces on PSOE’s side of the house. Nothing will change on the Catalan issue. A gradual recovery of full autonomic status will not be enough for two million plus secessionists in Catalonia, whoever the newly installed in government in Spain or Catalonia might be.

Both Sánchez and Torra face short legislatures in which achieving anything significant will be extremely difficult. Spain is broken and no amount of repression or authoritarianism is likely to put it back together again. Cosmetic change will solve nothing either. Spain is also broke, and attempts at more social politics will not be allowed by Spain’s creditors if they cost more money. Fiscal responsibilty and austerity have been the watchwords for Spanish fiscal policy for a decade, whatever the levels of poverty reached. Any attempts to address such issues are automatically blocked in most of Europe’s poorer countries.

What we might see is a period of plate-spinning, as both try to show they are dealing with things, but where the best you can hope for is that the plates don’t break, well, at least not all of them. There are many crises to be overcome in Spain: constitutional, economic, social, judicial. Spain’s continued existence as a constitutional monarchy is coming under scrutiny, too – Republicanism in Spain is not some marginal belief. How much can realistically be done in two years, especially regarding Spain’s hottest potato, the Catalan question? Sánchez and Torra are both up against it.

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