Spanish government suspends its investment in El Prat due to lack of consensus with the Generalitat

Aragonès speaks of "blackmail" while Puigneró maintains an extended hand between reproaches to PSOE and ERC

4 min
Raquel Sanchez, Minister of Transport and Urban Agenda of the Spanish Government

Barcelona / MadridAfter months of heated debate, dialogue tables and a surprise agreement in August, the expansion of El Prat airport has gone from being sealed to be completely frozen. The Spanish Minister for Transport, Mobility and Urban Agenda, Raquel Sánchez, announced this Wednesday that the €1.7bn investment would be put on hold in an appearance expressly convened at only an hour's notice. The reason given is the statements made in recent days by the Generalitat, which demanded changes to the project to ensure the protected natural areas of La Ricarda lagoon would not be affected.

The central government's announcement comes after Catalan Government spokeswoman Patrícia Plaja said yesterday that she "would not be surprised" if cabinet members took part in the demonstration against the extension of El Prat airport called by several environmental groups for September 19. Ms Sánchez was disappointed by this position and has claimed that statements made by the president of the Generalitat, Pere Aragonès, surprised her "a lot". "We consider that the pact [sealed on 2 August between the Government and the State to move forward with the extension] has been broken by a clear loss of confidence," insisted the Minister of Transport.

In a categorical way, the minister considers that it is impossible to go ahead with the airport expansion project "without a clear and unwavering support" from the Generalitat. In her opinion, the fact that some members of the Catalan government were considering attending the protest implies that the executive does not have a "mature position" on this project. In this sense, Sánchez defended that a €1.7bn investment as the one that Aena was preparing requires "big institutional consensuses".

"These investments cannot be included in the DORA [development plan for Spanish airports]. The government wants Catalonia to be an economic engine of Spain, but it will not impose the expansion," said the minister. Even so, sources in the Spanish government have admitted to ARA that should the Generalitat backtrack, there would be time to re-include the extension in the DORA before it is due to be approved by the cabinet. In fact, the project's suspension does not imply any change for the airports of Girona and Reus, where the planned investments and the commitment to a high-speed rail link are maintained.

Division in the Catalan Government

The first answer from the Generalitat has come from the vice-president, Jordi Puigneró, who signed the agreement with the Spanish government on August 2nd to enlarge the airport. From Brussels, after participating Junts per Catalonia (JxCat) work meetings, criticised the Spanish government for "unilaterally" breaking the deal and accused it of "disloyalty". According to him, it shows that Madrid "never keeps its word" with Catalonia.

However, Puigneró has not only taking aim against Madrid; he had words for his coalition partners ERC too. In recent hours, ERC had expressed the possibility of protesting against the pact between the State and the Generalitat. Thus, it has pointed out that statements like those made by spokeswoman Plaja have generated "confusion" around the investment. "We have heard statements that could have been left unsaid and which do not help the goal of generating consensus," he lamented, acknowledging that he informed Catalan president Pere Aragonès of his "discomfort" and "annoyance". "Frivolity and populism have caused damage," he said.

This episode had already generated tension between the two coalition partners, since last Friday Aragonès also criticised airport controller Aena's investment plan on Twitter, denouncing it affected the natural space of La Ricarda. The plan, in JxCat's view, was still not concrete enough and, in any case, it had enough room for reform through the negotiation of the airport's master plan. A solution to the crisis was initially found on Saturday, but it seems to have been short-lasting.

With the withdrawal of the Spanish government's investment, the division between the two partners is once again at the forefront. The clearest sign is that there has been no joint reaction from the Generalitat. Instead, Puigneró has spoken on JxCat's befalf, while Aragonès, on his way back from meeting the Valencian president Ximo Puig, has posted a series of tweets. The president has described the State's attitude as blackmail and has accused it of not wanting to make an investment respecting environmental criteria. This discourse differs from that of his coalition partner, since Puigneró has insisted that the agreement which the Generalitat had reached on August 2 allowed for the protection of the lagoon .

Yolanda Díaz's role

After Aragonès's statements on the environmental impact of the project increased the tension between the two administrations, the Spanish government started preparing the announcement. Then came Catalan government spokeswoman Patricia Plaja's announcement that the Government did not rule out participating in the demonstration against the expansion of El Prat. Plaja's words were the final trigger, according to Spanish government sources, while Unidas Podemos stress they have also contributed through their public opposition.

Voices close to the third vice president explain to ARA that the Uniudas Podemos leader "started to apply pressure" when it became public that the project to extend the runway affected part of La Ricarda. She did so while working side by side with the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, and the mayor of El Prat de Llobregat to stop the project.

In fact, Diaz is visiting La Ricarda on Thursday, accompanied by Colau. Sources consulted by ARA claim the vice president told the Spanish president, Pedro Sánchez, that she would visit the area and that she would not hide her opposition to the project. The same voices point out that the socialist leader had been inclined to suspend the extension before the ERC's change in attitude. Even so, sources around the president make it clear that Díaz has had no impact on the decision. They also deny that Sánchez and Díaz spoke during the last few days about El Prat and insist that what sparked the decision was the change in the Generalitat's discourse.