Spain’s Pedro Sanchez proffers olive branch to Catalan

Catalonia’s Vice President Pere Aragones in an interview. (Bloomberg pic)

MADRID: Carles Puigdemont wants Catalan separatists to keep pushing for an independent republic, a play he bailed out on when he had the chance last year.

But the allies who stayed behind to pick up the pieces when the former regional president fled into exile aren’t so sure about answering his call this time.

The Catalan administration has only just regained its powers after seven months of direct rule from Madrid and Puigdemont’s successors are more focused on steadying the ship than provoking another destructive clash with the central government. With the new Spanish government ready to discuss concrete policy changes at a meeting this week, there is also money on the table.

“We’re not giving up our political project, but it will require a different time and a different balance of political forces,” Catalan Vice President Pere Aragones, 35, said in an interview last week. “We’ll propose to move forward when the conditions are in place for us to succeed.”

Much has changed since Puigdemont sneaked out of the country last October leaving his administration in chaos following a half-hearted declaration of independence. Perhaps most important was Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez taking control in Madrid with the backing of Catalan separatist votes in the National Parliament.

Talks on funding

After seven years of intransigence when the 63-year-old former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy left Catalan society split down the middle, Sanchez is offering dialogue and a chance to heal some wounds.

As his first move, Sanchez, 46, is reviving a bilateral commission that lay dormant under Rajoy’s conservative People’s Party. The body meets for the first time Wednesday and will discuss funding for the Catalan police and investment in infrastructure – though the separatists’ fundamental demand for an official referendum on independence is off the table for Sanchez.

“We are fully aware that what has happened in the last eight years, won’t be solved in eight weeks,” Aragones said. “I would like to have a dialogue that lasts for months, and I’ll work for that.”

Both sides have an incentive to make it work.

Puigdemont brushed off

Sanchez’s main opponents Albert Rivera of Ciudadanos and the new PP leader Pablo Casado, have taken a hard line against Catalan separatism and are positioned to benefit in elections due 2020 if his outreach fails. The Catalans know that if they want to cut a deal with Madrid, they may not get a better chance than Sanchez.

As the Catalan government addresses voters’ everyday concerns after years of ideological campaigns, Puigdemont is trying to keep the separatist movement together in a single bloc focused on the independence campaign for Spain’s local elections in May. Aragones, from the centre left group Esquerra Republicana, dismissed that approach out of hand.

“The pro-independence movement is so diverse that it’s impossible to reduce it to a single list,” he said.

Beneath the disagreements on tactics, there are also personal tensions within the movement.

30-year sentence

Aragones spoke from his office at the regional economy department in Barcelona. Last year it was occupied by his predecessor and party leader Oriol Junqueras before he was jailed for his part in the independence push.

When Puigdemont skipped town last year, Junqueras stayed behind to argue his case before Spain’s Supreme Court and he’s been in jail on remand ever since – judges have cited Puigdemont’s flight in their arguments for keeping Junqueras locked up. Junqueras is being investigated for a potential charge of rebellion which carries a sentence of up to 30 years.

“Oriol Junqueras is a person of strong political, ideological and ethical convictions and when you’re in prison these convictions can help you,” said Aragones, who visited his colleague last week. “He is convinced that he did what he should have done.”

Puigdemont is betting that a series of political milestones in the second half of the year – including the Catalan Day demonstrations on September 11 and the first anniversary of his illegal referendum on October 1 – will help him stir up support for a fresh challenge to the Spanish state.

Aragones meanwhile is looking for state lawyers to dial back their sentencing demands when the trial begins, possibly also during the fall, as a sign that Sanchez’s attempts at a rapprochement are genuine.

“If we are good enough to make Pedro Sanchez Prime Minister, if we’re good enough to approve his spending plan, if we’re good enough to negotiate the budget bill then we shouldn’t be treated like rebels who deserve to be in prison,” Aragones said.