Though the Catalan Parliament and Madrid’s Congress of Deputies are only a little over 600 kilometres apart, yesterday they appeared to be separated by an even greater distance, that which currently divides the Catalan and Spanish governments. As Catalan President Carles Puigdemont warned Madrid that dialogue is only possible if it includes an independence referendum and if it accepts that Catalonia warrants a bilateral relationship, at approximately the same time, the Deputy Prime Minister of Spain, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, speaking in Madrid, put paid to any possibility of negotiations on the right to decide.
It also became evident that Operation Dialogue —which the Spanish government has been preaching in recent weeks— has quickly ran out of steam when it comes to moving from words to actions. Pending final arrangements regarding meetings between the two governments —Puigdemont with Mariano Rajoy and Vice President Oriol Junqueras with Santamaría—, yesterday the Catalan president reiterated his skepticism as to the real outcome of changes in the Spanish government’s rhetoric, stressing that "the intention to hold dialogue is not dialogue".
In a Presidential Question Time dominated by debate as to the relationship between the two institutions, Puigdemont declared that his government will always be open to dialogue. However, he said that such talks must be based on two principles: there are no preconditions, —in other words, that the referendum can be discussed—, and that Catalonia and Spain are on an equal footing. "We have justly earned the right to be recognized in a completely different manner from the way in which the realities that concern the common system are dealt with", he declared, stating that multilateral forums such as the conference of regional presidents have so far proved ineffective for dealing with the Catalan issue.
Speaking from Congress, the Spanish Vice President, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, responded to Puigdemont’s demands by adhering closely to her usual script. Instead of welcoming bilateralism, Santamaría ruled out any possibility of holding a referendum on independence and challenged those who backed independence to reform the Spanish Constitution if they wish to proceed with their roadmap. Her speech may have been new in terms of the surroundings in which it was given, —previously the PP had never voiced the possibility of a referendum in parliament—, but in practice it signals zero progress in terms of the proposals from Mariano Rajoy’s government, aware that a potential majority in Congress favourable to the referendum is currently unthinkable.
Santamaria was responding to a question put to her by Francesc Homs, the Partit Demòcrata’s (PDECat) spokesperson in Madrid’s Congress. He once more raised the question of the creation of a parliamentary committee to address the Catalan question, and called on the government to abide by the 46 points Puigdemont presented to Rajoy to advance relations between the two executives. Santamaria declined to make an explicit offer, merely naming investments by the state in Catalonia which have already approved or indeed already completed, such as work on the Segarra-Garrigues canal or road links to the port of Barcelona.
Santamaría and Homs accused each other of having drawn "lines in the sand" in terms of negotiations: a "referendum at all costs" and "no referendum under any circumstances", respectively. Santamaria, who is also the Minister of Territorial Administration, and responsible for relations with Catalonia in Rajoy’s government, took the opportunity to ask those in favour of independence "to overcome the reproach phase" to focus "on what is tangible" and "participate in all forums" in which issues that might affect Catalonia are debated, thereby reprimanding Puigdemont’s likely absence from the conference of presidents in which negotiations concerning regional funding are due to start.
The Spanish government also failed to make any gesture regarding the Catalan budget. The PP’s parliamentary spokesman, Rafael Hernando, warned that Rajoy’s government would take measures against the Catalan government’s accounts if it fails to drop the items earmarked for the referendum during the budget’s passage through parliament. Hernando declared that he was "confident" that the Catalan government would amend this "highly unfortunate decision", while emphasising that, if necessary, they would be "forced to act." Meanwhile, the Delegate of the Spanish Government to Catalonia, Enric Millo, warned that the government’s legal advisors are studying the situation. As a result, the Spanish government reserves the right to take the issue to court, the Constitutional Court in particular. This in spite of the fact that Santamaria announced that the bilateral commission between the Catalan and Spanish governments had succeeded in preventing 40% of disputes between the two administrations. She added: "If you’re prepared to, we can talk and bring that percentage up to 60%."
A meeting with Millo
Santamaría's words in Madrid confirmed Puigdemont’s suspicions, who during his appearance before the Catalan Parliament predicted that the Deputy Prime Minister’s response to Homs would prove that Madrid’s offer of dialogue "would amount to nothing". Puigdemont based his prediction on the fact that in recent weeks the judicial process has not been halted. Only yesterday the Catalan Parliament’s legal team were cross-examined by the High Court of Justice of Catalonia (TSJC) in its case against the Speaker of the Catalan Parliament, Carme Forcadell. Likewise, there appears to be no gesture to recognise the Catalan government as a bilateral partner. By the afternoon, the list of grievances had grown following the announcement by Spain’s Treasury Minister, Cristóbal Montoro, that he will introduce his own tax on sugary drinks Spain-wide, thereby annulling the Catalan government’s plans to create precisely the same tax in Catalonia.
In light of the skepticism surrounding Madrid’s offer of talks —in the form of a meeting between the President of Catalonia and Millo this Friday—, the Catalan president also tried to diffuse the misgivings previously expressed by the CUP, wary that part of PDECat would be lured by the "siren song" emanating from the Spanish government. Yesterday Carles Puigdemont and Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría proved that politically the distance between them is greater than 600 kilometres.
The PSC calls for budget to be frozen
Aside from any action the state takes in relation to the sums set aside for the referendum included in the draft budget for 2017, in Catalonia the parliamentary groups opposed to independence have already begun to take action in order to stop the budget being processed. Yesterday the PSC formally requested parliament to reconsider the admissibility of the accounts, since the PSC believes that sums earmarked for participatory and electoral processes —some 5.8 million euros— could contravene the Constitutional Court's ruling against the declaration of rupture adopted on 9 November 2015 by Junts pel Sí and the CUP. Furthermore, the Socialist Party also called for the Parliament’s legal advisors to write a report on the legal suitability of a budget which makes an explicit commitment to the referendum in its articles.