17 May 2018
Jaw-Jaw in the Sun
Impasse in Catalonia
by J.R. Thomas
Jaw-Jaw is better than war-war, said Winston Churchill. And also better than trying to govern Catalonia, might add Mariano Rajoy, the current Spanish prime minister. Mr Rajoy has had that unenviable task since last October when his gamble of forcing new elections on Catalonia backfired as Catalonians again elected a (narrow) majority for independence. The original declaration seemingly took Rajoy unawares. Mr Rajoy fumbled, recovered, and sent in the police who broke a few heads but enabled Mr Rajoy to take control. The new ministers were arrested, or in the case of Carles Puigdemont, President-elect, fled into exile.
Since then things have not gone well. Attempts by Mr Rajoy to create a new anti-independence government went awry when the pro-independence parties scored their victory. Since then everybody has been stuck in rather awkward positions – Mr Rajoy having to run a province which is openly hostile to him (it does not help that Rajoy is of the (moderate) Right and Catalonian politics dominated by the Left); several Catalonian ministers remain under arrest accused of treason to Spain; Mr Puigdemont is marooned, currently in Berlin, knowing that if he comes back to Catalonia he will be arrested.
Over the past few weeks Mr P has decided that somebody has to make a move and as his move was not going to be to arrest, he suggested the Catalan parliament, still meeting in Barcelona, should elect a new leader to try to untangle the complex web. That sounds easy. But nothing in Spanish politics is easy. The Left in Catalonia is split into three parties who do not get on and are not all pro-independence – indeed all that currently holds them together is a dislike of Mr Rajoy and his government.
They have though managed to cleave together enough to elect a new President, Quim Torra, a former insurance lawyer and Francois Hollande lookalike. (Or Michael Ancram lookalike, if your memory goes back a little further.) Mr Torra cannot be described as the popular choice; he has been much criticised in the past from all sides for using some pretty abusive language about Spain and Spaniards – “filth” and “vultures” among the milder stuff. In return the leader of the Catalan Socialist Party said that Mr Torra is “a supremacist ultranationalist … who hates half the people he wishes to govern”, and says it will not support him. This is a point well made. Barcelona was until the recent difficulties the economic engine room of Spain, seeing large scale immigration from other parts of Spain. A recent poll showed that 43% of Catalans self-identify as Spanish with nearly two thirds having at least one parent from elsewhere than Catalonia.
Mr Torra immediately flew off to Berlin to see Mr Puigdemont, saying that he regarded Mr P as the true President of Catalonia (it remains to be seen if that sentiment will last if Mr P returns to Catalonia and wants his job back). Arriving in Barcelona, Torra apologised for his past “excesses” and said he liked the Spanish. That was not good enough for the Catalan anti-capitalist party who described him as “a neo-liberal capitalist”, though it was they who enabled him to win the Presidency, by one vote, by abstaining in the parliamentary vote. (We should make clear that “neo-liberal capitalist” was intended as a term of gross abuse, for the benefit of readers who feel it a fine thing to be.) Nor was it good enough for the mayor of Barcelona who tweeted that what was needed was a reconciliatory leader, not a “faithful candidate of Puigdemont”.
Mr Torra also asked Prime Minister Rajoy to enter into talks as to how the current situation may be resolved and Catalan government be restored. Mr Rajoy has said that he is prepared to talk, but will not allow independence, threatening to re-invoke section 155 of the Spanish constitution, which forbids secession of Spanish provinces, if moves are once again made for secession.
This does not suggest that there will be any early resolution to the independence issue. That might rather suit Mr Rajoy, for many reasons It is very much in his interests to provoke further turmoil in the Catalonian left; with Mr Torra in place it is likely that turmoil will be self-creating and self-sustaining. He almost certainly would not have got the job had two long standing pro-independence leaders, Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Torull, been available. But they are on remand for their actions during the declaration of independence and ineligible to stand. If, however, Mr Rajoy may reflect, they were to become available, that would stir things up. Nor is the European Union any supporter of Catalan independence; the EU, it is noticeable, is currently no friend of independence movements.
Mr Torra, unpopular both on left and right, seems to have no loyal following and to be seen by all sides as a temporary solution; an emotional and sharp tempered solution at that. Any rise in his popularity will not go down well with Mr Puigdemont, who is conscious that he did not enhance his position by fleeing to Brussels to frequent the centres of gastronomic excellence available there (this may explain his move to Berlin). Mr Rajoy is also aware that his robust handling of the Catalan troubles have brought him increased popularity in the rest of Spain, strengthening what was his weakening position as leader of the rightest coalition; he currently seems unassailable in his job.
But Mr Rajoy’s greatest asset is time; Catalonia is likely to become less and less Catalan as immigration from the rest of Spain (and indeed Europe) continues, especially around Barcelona, and as modern Spain sees much greater movement for work and relationships between its regions. In a relatively short time it is likely that the natural Catalan majority will vanish. That was not least the reason for Mr Puigdemont’s original hurry, and Mr Rajoy’s current urge to spin things out. Time, as so often, will tell.