As the smoke clears
Like on a battlefield, the political survivors of Catalonia’s independence bid have got back on their feet. Like in war, there is no better source of courage in politics than one’s own survival instinct and nothing paves the way for an armistice better than recalling the drama you have experienced, the fear of making the same mistakes and taking further casualties. This week PM Pedro Sánchez, whose own side left for dead in so many battles, has pulled out the survival manual and turned a necessity into an opportunity as he paid Catalonia a leisurely visit. The trip had initially been met with massive distrust by both sides, but Sánchez managed to stroll through Barcelona city with his Catalan interlocutors on their best behaviour. Unlike what happened at the city’s Hospital de Sant Pau only a few months earlier, this time the Spanish leader wasn’t heckled by any members of the public protesting over the State’s utterly outrageous abuse of power in Catalonia.
Now that president Torra and his Spanish counterpart have shown they are capable of civil behaviour and able to grin and bear it, it is time for them to turn a new page and start a dialogue, despite all the many difficulties.
This is not a love story and we will see whether it leads to sex, but it is good thing that it has begun. Pedro Sánchez needs ERC’s votes in the Spanish parliament to approve his budget. Amid the shouting from some of Madrid’s most belligerent media and the unrelenting opposition, the PSOE leader has made a substantial policy change with an institutional visit that has met its objective: to ease the strain and start an institutional dialogue in Catalonia, not merely with the Catalan executive, but also with the City and the provincial government.
As ever, this is also about managing expectations and both sides harboured little hope of any progress, which meant that the meeting between both presidents turned out to be a first step forward. Despite the huge mutual distrust that had built up between Madrid and Barcelona and a fear of possible surprises, the conversation between Torra and Sánchez proceeded with institutional respect and, as expected, neither of them budged an inch. The gestures and symbolism at the Barcelona meeting brought back the image of institutional dignity after president Torra had been scorned. The two leaders agreed to hold two further meetings with different agendas. One will deal with eternally unresolved bilateral matters, whereas the other will address the key political issues: self-determination and an amnesty. The fact that Pedro Sánchez’s room for manoeuvre seems rather scarce and the difficulty of the negotiation itself would advise a modicum of restraint. That is why it is crucial to refer back to previous instances of talks between Barcelona and Madrid and remember how [in the late 1990s] Spanish PM José María Aznar ditched his party’s anti-Catalan rhetoric and devolved further powers to Catalonia [in exchange for parliamentary support], only to break off any ties with the Catalan government after he got drunk on the outright majority he secured in 2000.
Now we are being presented with a window of opportunity and everyone’s influence is commensurate with the number of seats they hold in parliament. Therefore, we ought to insist that talks don’t break down before they have even started. For lack of a rapporteur [which Madrid has objected to], sophisticated negotiation methods could be put in place —if required— to foster the necessary trust that is nowhere to be seen today.
Gearing up for the snap elections
President Torra is steering the boat towards the polls whilst bringing back the most amenable version of himself and singing the praises of his own government. JxCat’s campaign kicked off on Saturday. The next two weeks will be crammed full of internal talks to establish what message their slate will send out. Some prominent figures within the PDECat demand more political action, greater emphasis on the management of government affairs, less gesticulation and fewer independent candidates. The latter are also asking to receive some credit over the election result on 21 December 2017, after the painstaking process by which the slate was put together. PDECat leader David Bonvehí is expected to step up talks with Carles Puigdemont and the jailed political leaders in the coming days.
A Nazi is a Nazi
We will miss Angela Merkel. Despite her obsession with imposing austerity on the South during the worst years of the debt crisis, Merkel has played a constructive role in the EU and has kept the ghosts of racism, bigotry and Nazism at bay until the very last day. This week the conservative German leader signalled to her liberal partners in Thuringia —who were willing to govern their region with Merkel’s CDU and the backing of AfD, the far right party— that she wasn’t having any of it. Merkel came out saying that the outcome marked “a bad day” and that the decision would be rectified because the “basic principle” of not forming a majority with the far right had been violated. This is how Merkel showed the door to Thuringia’s newly-appointed president Thomas Kemmerich, who was sworn in on Wednesday and had to step down the next day. Angela Merkel knows that a Nazi is a Nazi and she won’t compromise with the devil. This is in stark contrast with Spain, where the far right is making the most of their pacts with the PP and Ciudadanos to attain recognition and normalisation, aided by their constant presence on some Madrid-based media who are only looking to put on a show. For some political leaders, a Nazi is a Nazi and the far right is the far right. They won’t stand by shameful compromises that take us back to the past.