LONDON – The struggle to maintain Spain’s territorial unity will register a new important twist on Thursday (Feb 5) as Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez meets with Mr Quim Torra, the leader of the regional government in Catalonia, the country’s restless province.
In a highly symbolic gesture, it is Prime Minister Sanchez who is travelling to the Catalan capital of Barcelona for the encounter. And the meeting itself is considered as a major concession, for few other top Spanish politicians would have contemplated such a move.
Yet beyond the significant symbolism of the occasion, the talks are unlikely to resolve the impasse. For both Spain’s central government and regional nationalist politicians in Catalonia have limited room for manoeuvre in this epic struggle which is set to continue.
The fate of Catalonia has consumed Spanish politics since October 2017, when the province’s separatist leaders organised a referendum on the territory’s independence from Spain.
That referendum, which ignored Spain’s constitutional provisions and was held in the absence of proper electoral rolls or procedures was declared null and void by Spain’s Supreme Court.
Several Catalan officials were subsequently sentenced to long prison terms for their part in organising the illegal ballot and Mr Carles Puigdemont, the leader of the Catalan government at that time, is still on the run from Spanish justice; a court in Belgium is due to rule on whether he can be extradited to Spain later this month.
Still, as all Spanish leaders know only too well, the long-term answer to the country’s problems cannot come through the courts; it has to include a new political settlement.
Catalan separatist leaders claim that their people have all the attributes of a distinct nation, including their own language, history and culture, and complain to have been suppressed by Spain for centuries.
However, the fact remains that Catalonia is Spain’s wealthiest province; demands for independence come from those who, after benefitting from Spain’s economic development, now resent sharing their wealth with Spain’s other regions.
Catalonia also already enjoys an unprecedented level of autonomy within Spain, with its own government controlling much of the budget spending, as well as education and most economic activities.
Nor is it clear that separatists are in a majority; although the regional Catalan government is frequently under their sway, all opinion polls indicate the ordinary Catalans are very split over the question of independence.
The problem is that the Catalan events have all sparked off a serious popular backlash in other parts of Spain. Red and yellow Spanish flag frequently flutter from balconies of ordinary homes in many Spanish cities as a sign of defiance against separatists.
The dispute over Spain’s territorial integrity also coincides with a new and acute political crisis at the central government level in the national capital of Madrid.
Prime Minister Sanchez, a centre-left Socialist who first came to office in June 2018, gambled last year on holding new general elections in order to strengthen his hand at the expense of smaller far-left parties.
The gamble failed, leaving Mr Sanchez with no alternative but to form a coalition with precisely the far-left parties he sought to avoid. The 47-year-old prime minister is now leading Spain’s first coalition government since the turbulent 1930s, hardly a good omen since that was also the time of the country’s bloody civil war.
To make matters worse, the Sanchez government only survives because of the tacit support of a moderate separatist Catalan party in the Spanish national parliament; it was in order to appease that party that Mr Sanchez agreed to travel to Barcelona today.
The opposition is, predictably, accusing the prime minister of treachery. And Mr Sanchez is acutely aware of the fact that one wrong move from him could throw national politics into an even bigger turmoil: the backlash against separatists has fuelled the rise of Vox, a hard-right party that is now Spain’s third-biggest political voice.
Nor can Mr Quim Torra, the leader of the Catalan regional government, offer any concessions; his own party is still under the influence of the most extreme separatists, and Catalonia is due to hold regional elections in either May or June.
Nevertheless, the real battle is about who ultimately controls the political narrative in this dispute. So, by appearing willing to explore possibilities for a political dialogue with separatists, Prime Minister Sanchez may well be able to seize the political initiative.
The meeting today will be watched carefully by other European leaders, as well as by politicians in Britain.
For the manner by which Spain’s Catalonia problem is being managed could well tip the balance in the handling of pro-independence demands in other parts of the continent such as in Scotland.