Catalan independence talks are back — and the stakes are high for PM Sánchez

Opponents of the parties set to restart talks take aim after a coronavirus-enforced break.

Catalan independence talks are back — and the stakes are high for PM Sánchez

MADRID — It took a global pandemic to push Catalan independence to the sidelines, but now the dominant issue in national politics for the past decade is back.

On Wednesday, negotiations between Madrid and Catalonia over Spain’s territorial conflict will resume after a hiatus of a year and a half.

However, while the resumption of the so-called mesa de diálogo (negotiating table) helps ensure the stability of the central government of Pedro Sánchez, critics are already condemning it to failure. If they are right, the Catalan problem, which unleashed a full-blown constitutional crisis in 2017, could ignite once again.

The negotiations began in February 2020 between Sánchez, of the Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), and then-Catalan President Quim Torra. But only one meeting between the leaders was held before the pandemic postponed the talks. This year, a new Catalan government has been formed, led by Pere Aragonès of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC). A more moderate figure than Torra, he has been a leading advocate of the talks from the outset.

The ERC has offered its parliamentary support to Sánchez, ensuring his leftist coalition administration maintains its narrow majority in exchange for the continuation of the negotiations.

“It is necessary to find a democratic outcome, a political solution to a political conflict,” Aragonès said in August, flagging his intention to enter the talks “with the maximum ambition.”

In June, Sánchez issued pardons for nine Catalan leaders who had been jailed for sedition for their role in a failed secession attempt four years ago. It was a move that he said would ease tensions in the northeastern region. It was also seen as instrumental in ensuring the continued support of ERC.

However, the right-wing opposition warns that the upcoming talks are, like the pardons, a cynical move by Sánchez to keep his government alive and which threatens Spain’s territorial unity.

“From now on they have to negotiate and haggle once again over the price of [Sánchez] staying in power,” said Pablo Casado, leader of the conservative Popular Party (PP). The far-right Vox, meanwhile, has labeled the mesa de diálogo “a table of surrender.”

Recent polls suggest that pardoning the nine Catalan prisoners has hurt the popularity of Sánchez’s PSOE among voters across Spain. But with a general election not due until 2023, the coalition government’s survival is guaranteed if parliamentary allies like ERC remain onside.

Yet the two sides are far apart going into the talks. The Catalan government has two main demands: an amnesty for the dozens of pro-independence politicians who are still facing legal action for their role in the events of 2017; and acknowledgment of Catalonia’s right to self-determination, leading to a binding referendum on independence.

Sánchez has already ruled out both, deeming a referendum unconstitutional. Isabel Rodríguez, his minister for territorial affairs, reiterated that stance ahead of the upcoming meeting.

“[The Catalan government] knows that there is a very clear framework, beyond which the central government will not go, which is the law and the constitution,” she told Spanish National Radio (RNE). “This government and the prime minister in particular have made some big efforts in terms of dialogue and rapprochement in Catalonia. We’ve moved, now it’s time for the other side to move.”

Instead, Sánchez has said he plans to bring to the table proposals to increase investment and financing in the region. He called on Catalan leaders to “get out of the navel-gazing they have been indulging in for the last 15 years.”

It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that the mood music in the independence camp is muted.

“It seems, from what they’ve said, that the pardons are [Sánchez’s] final concession,” said Victoria Alsina, Catalan regional minister for foreign affairs. “And for the Catalan government, [the pardons] was the starting point for the pre-condition to start this table of negotiations.”

The Catalan government has also been unimpressed by Sánchez’s failure to confirm his own presence at the talks until the last minute, a move that appears to reflect his reluctance to allow the process to dominate the political agenda in the coming months. The prime minister’s sudden cancellation this month of plans to go ahead with a €1.7 billion expansion of Barcelona’s El Prat airport, citing lack of support from the Catalan government, has further soured bilateral relations.

All of this casts doubt on whether the talks will lead to any agreement at all.

“[The Sánchez government] has said that it doesn’t want to discuss an independence referendum,” said Francesc-Marc Álvaro, an author and journalist at the newspaper La Vanguardia. “If that is the case they have to propose something else that is substantial.” He suggests that a vote could eventually end up on the table, in the form of a referendum on revising Catalonia’s existing self-rule powers.

Yet such an offer will fail to impress many pro-independence Catalans.

Aragonès’ ERC has presented the talks as a difficult but necessary undertaking, but his more hardline junior coalition partner, Together for Catalonia (JxCat), has been more skeptical. JxCat’s self-exiled leader, Carles Puigdemont, declared recently that “if we want independence, the Spanish state has made sure that confrontation is inevitable.”

On Saturday, during celebrations to mark Catalan national day, the Diada, divisions were visible as Oriol Junqueras, the leader of ERC, was jeered and called a botifler (traitor) by some demonstrators. The two parties have also clashed over who should attend the talks on the Catalan side.

“JxCat is constantly saying that it doesn’t believe in the negotiations,” said Álvaro. “The allies of Puigdemont are waiting for the talks to fail so that they can gain the upper hand over ERC.”

In Madrid, the unionist right will be anticipating a similar outcome, which would be electorally damaging for Sánchez and, feasibly, set the Catalan clock back to 2017, when Madrid and Barcelona’s failure to engage triggered the worst crisis of Spain’s modern era.

“If we have one side talking about self-determination and amnesties and the other side talking about infrastructure, I don’t know if this [negotiation] is going to last very long,” said Elisenda Paluzie, president of the Catalan National Assembly, the largest pro-independence civic organization, which was influential in promoting the failed bid for independence four years ago.

A return to a unilateral independence strategy is likely if the Spanish government does not agree to a referendum on secession, she warned.

Alsina, the Catalan foreign minister, echoed those sentiments.

“If this process stops and fails, we will have a reaction here,” she said. “The level of frustration and disaffection [among pro-independence Catalans] is high.”

For now, the talks are a life raft for Sánchez’s government. But if the prime minister is unable to show that they are leading somewhere meaningful the outcome could be costly — for him and for Spain.

Source : Politico EU More   

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The end of Euro-bashing

Euroskeptic posturing might win politicians votes at home, but it's increasingly costing them on the European stage.

The end of Euro-bashing

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet professor of EU law at HEC Paris and the founder of the civic startup The Good Lobby. 

Michel Barnier’s recent attack on the power of the European courts caught many by surprise. How is it that the EU’s former chief Brexit negotiator transformed himself from the most strenuous defender of EU integrity into a patriotic champion of French self-interest against the Union? 

Simple. Upon reentering the French political arena as a presidential hopeful, Barnier — the great European — unabashedly played the ultimate domestic political card: EU-bashing. 

This longstanding practice of shifting the blame for domestic problems from national politics to the Union via inaccurate statements has long been electorally rewarding. Tacit collusion among national politicians, combined with a mutually profitable alignment with mainstream media, has entrenched EU-bashing into political systems across the Continent. 

Brexit is the most spectacular and tangible expression of this phenomenon — unforgettably symbolized by the inaccurate statement that the U.K. sends Brussels £350 million a week, emblazoned on Vote Leave’s bus. Not to mention the endless string of factually inaccurate and/or distorted stories on migration, terrorism and control of borders, according to a Brexit dossier compiled by InFacts. 

Sadly, this practice is not restricted to just the U.K. or a few other EU countries. Nor — as Barnier’s story demonstrates — has it remained purely the prerogative of anti-EU or Euroskeptic voices. Rather, it has consolidated into a bipartisan tradition within the national political systems of each of the 27 EU countries. 

Think of former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi hiding his EU flag in an effort to gain popularity ahead of a self-imposed constitutional referendum, which turned out to be fatal for his political career. Or think of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s strain of Euroskepticism during the latest election campaign, during which he lambasted the Union for interfering in national matters.  

By now, Euroskepticism is clearly embedded in the political DNA of the Hungarian and Polish ruling parties as well.  

EU-bashing has long been shaping the Union as we know it. And vice versa. 

Because behind the often-false Euroskeptic claims lies an inconvenient truth: After 70 years of unprecedented socioeconomic integration, the EU lacks a dedicated political system that is accountable to — and representative of — its over 445 million citizens. 

Instead, EU representatives — whether heads of state and government in the European Council or MEPs in the Parliament — are selected through 27 parallel national political processes. Not only are these processes national in nature (you can only vote for representatives from your own country), they remain mostly unintelligible to most EU citizens, even as they jointly define the European electoral game. 

Over the years, this opaqueness and lack of direct accountability has largely insulated the European political systems from scrutiny. Major political failures have taken place — think the Dieselgate scandal, the lack of a unified EU migration policy or the implementation of costly austerity measures — without anyone paying a political price.  

This lack of political intelligibility nurtures major political incoherence between the national and EU levels. It has allowed the European People’s Party —with the complicity of German Chancellor Angela Merkel — to benefit from the support of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán despite his party, Fidesz, systematically breaching core EU values. It has also permitted the Spanish political party Ciudadanos — a member of the EU liberal family — to cozy up to the ultra-right party Vox at home, while siding with French President Emmanuel Macron in Europe.  

The good news is that Europe is growing its resistance to EU-bashing rhetoric, as actions that once would have gone unnoticed attract unexpected attention. Despite the absence of a genuine European political space, a growing number of Europeans — aided by the media — seem increasingly capable of calling their politicians out when they engage in cheap, factually inaccurate EU-bashing.  

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was caught red-handed, for example, trying to shift the blame for vaccine shortages with Euroskeptic rhetoric. In the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson was being prosecuted for misconduct in public office based on alleged lying to the public over his faulty bus statement — a world first.  

Returning to Barnier, the response to his remarks within his own country already suggests that his cheap talk might have backfired. How credible can he still be after nonchalantly disavowing his EU credentials for purely domestic electoral purposes?  

There’s other good news too. A proposed EU electoral law to govern the next 2024 EU Parliamentary election is set to Europeanize the EU electoral competition. If adopted and ratified by all 27 member countries, it will create a Pan-EU college and transnational electoral lists and require that all national parties disclose their party affiliations on the European level. 

As the Pan-EU electoral competition heats up and EU citizens continue their scrutiny of faulty anti-EU rhetoric, national politicians will have to realize that while EU-bashing might win them support at home, it just might cost them in the end.

Source : Politico EU More   

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