It must be the slumber that announces the end of the oddest summer ever, or perhaps the exhaustion of what we used to call civil society. There are a thousand reasons for the latter. Either way, the start of the new political year has been underwhelming and demands a call to awaken from this lethargy, if we wish to avoid a slow, complacent decline. Catalonia needs a leadership that is less symbolic and more efficacious, one that will accompany the people —who are in real trouble— in their struggle for survival. The Catalan public is morally battered by the health and economic fallout of Covid-19 and feels distressed by the severity of the recession and the uncertainty of living with the pandemic, at school, at work or in the streets. It is imperative to have a government that will rise to the challenge in the coming months, when the decisions to be made will determine the future of Catalonia in the long term.
Last week, which saw the end of the relative summer truce, was intense and the two big news stories were as interesting as the reactions they prompted and the lack of leadership which they exposed. A lack of leadership that is not merely political.
Catalan president Quim Torra has appointed three new cabinet ministers with a view to coasting down the remainder of his term, even though discrepancies with [coalition partner] ERC had prompted him to announce a snap election seven months ago. Torra was willing to call an election before Spain’s Supreme Court [which is likely to convict him for disobeying a court order] bars him from holding public office, but now he is actively engaged in winning Puigdemont enough time to sort out his new political party, prepare its manifesto and choose an election candidate. In return, Torra got to sack Interior Minister Miquel Buch, whose performance leading the Catalan police force the president was very critical of. The top brass of the Mossos has been under judicial pressure since the 2017 failed independence bid and, in fact, Buch’s dismissal had been on the cards during previous reshuffles, but several cabinet ministers had opposed it. However, now president Torra —who has achieved a greater presence and grown more confident following the Covid-19 crisis— has got his way and has done his partners a favour by removing minister Chacón from the spotlight afforded by the Ministry of the Economy, which would have helped her in her efforts to become the PDECat’s new candidate. Despite claims otherwise by Torra’s inner circle, it is hard to believe that dismissing Àngels Chacón had anything to do with the fight on Covid-19. Her replacement, Ramon Tremosa, is a guarantee of policy continuity in a very large ministry that takes time to get the hang of and is tasked with supporting companies and the world of knowledge, both of which presently need answers and policies rather than partisanship.
The bitter breakup of the pro-independence centre-right is beginning to distil resentment in the public sphere. Besides the government reshuffle, the best example of that is how Artur Mas and Carles Puigdemont are now sat at opposite ends of the new space without volunteering an explanation to the Catalan public.
Nowadays Catalan society has a problem with public debate, open discussion having been replaced by euphemism and fabricated narratives, under the weight of Madrid’s wrongdoings, which justify everything. Prison, exile and Spain’s police brutality [on the day of the independence referendum] must remain present on our collective memory, but cannot hijack discrepancy and our capacity for criticism, unless we wish to sink into a placid, destructive lethargy.
The great banking merger
The other big story that broke last week was the merger of CaixaBank with Bankia. The quake must be understood as an attempt to consolidate by a sector that finds itself in a very tight spot, but one that leaves many questions unanswered. Banks have lost their traditional business, with negative interest rates and competition from the digital market. CaixaBank intends to survive by growing. Besides moving its HQ outside Catalonia, CaixaBank’s relative heft here has been shrinking, but it remains essential for businesses and regular savers. As its main shareholder, CaixaBank must ensure that it keeps a firm grip on the new bank and the Catalan-born Foundation.
It surprising to see how the relationship between La Caixa and the Catalan government has evolved in the last twenty years and how the large bank has now struck a deal on its future with the Spanish government, with the Catalan president not only staying out of it, but not even uttering one word.
Many families and businesses are struggling and concerned about children going back to school and furloughs being extended. Many of the hurdles in Catalonia’s path stem from Madrid’s poor treatment, but it would be a real pity if Catalonia chose not to do her bit just because she would rather run the whole thing on her own.