A decade of fruitless meetings
In the last ten years the differences over the Catalan independence bid have marked the meetings between Presidents that have ended with meagre results
From the initial harmony with Rajoy to the total rupture due to 9-N
President Artur Mas's first meeting at the Moncloa was the least important. In February 2011, with a José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero besieged by the crisis and with whom he had a deteriorated relationship since the negotiation of the Statute, everything remained a formality. Things would get interesting just a year later, when he went to visit the new tenant of the presidential palace, Mariano Rajoy who was trying to prevent Spain from being intervened. "I live in the mess", the PP President told him on the main staircase, in a fit of candor intercepted by all the cameras present. "Me too, me too", Mas replied. Presidential solidarity in a time of turbulence. Of all the meetings between presidents in the last decade, this is the one that had the best harmony. Mas governed Catalonia with the help of PP and was open to supporting the reforms that the Popular Party was preparing in the State -the labour reform and the stability law-, which would end up having CiU's vote in Congress. He also presented the fiscal pact that he wanted for Catalonia, but without much haste to obtain it.
The turning point in the presidential meetings came in September 2012. "It didn't go well", Mas confessed as he left. Rajoy confirmed the slamming of the door on the fiscal pact and the Catalan President would go on to call elections a few days later, setting a definitive course towards sovereignty. With the new Catalan political cycle - the Catalan independence bid- the initial harmony would not be recovered. Neither in the secret meetings - such as the one of August 29th 2013 - nor in the public meeting of July 2014. The 9-N consultation was an insurmountable wall between the two parties. At the July meeting, however, Mas would inaugurate a tradition that would be followed by his successors: to take to the Spanish President a list of concrete demands for Catalonia - 23 at the time - outside the independence bid. A shuttle train between Barcelona and the airport and the payment of the Statute's third additional demand were some examples. They would not be very well received.
Generalitat and State become two trains on a collision course
If Mas-Rajoy relations deteriorated little by little, when Carles Puigdemont arrived, they did not take off again either. And on their first meeting at the Moncloa on April 21st 2016, the Spanish President tried to start off on the right foot by presenting the Catalan with a facsimile of the part of Don Quixote in which the knight visits Barcelona. "Sadly, the meeting did not go well", Puigdemont would later explain in an appearance at the headquarters of the delegation of the Generalitat. The Catalan President had gone to Madrid claiming to be "the first president chosen by a Parliament with a pro-independence majority" and with the warning that only a binding referendum would paralyze the roadmap that JxSí then had in mind: a declaration of independence in 18 months. Rajoy's slamming of the door was resounding. And at that time the rest of the state parties were fighting to offer an alternative in Catalonia to the sovereigntist roadmap. Pedro Sánchez was pushing for constitutional reform, Albert Rivera for new financing and Pablo Iglesias for an agreed referendum. Rajoy offered nothing. Apart from the independence bid, Puigdemont updated Mas' list of 23 demands from 2014. Investments in Cercanías, respect for the Catalan language, outstanding debts... until reaching 46, twice as many. Rajoy assured that he would look into it.
Nor did the situation improve during a secret meeting on January 11th 2017. The positions were so different that, while Puigdemont demanded an agreed referendum, Rajoy replied that he should go to the conference of regional presidents six days later. Neither the Catalan went to the summit, nor the Spanish softened with the consultation. That day, at a discreet lunch that would not be revealed until February 22nd , the epitaph was placed to the operation Dialogue that had been initiated by the Spanish government with the vice-president Soraya Sáez de Santamaría at its head. The Generalitat and the State were two trains on a collision course, and this would be confirmed nine months later with 1-O.
Ratafia, Machado's fountain and a dialogue without results
Quim Torra and Pedro Sánchez also met in Madrid a couple of times. The first, in July 2018, is remembered for the walk they took through the gardens of the Moncloa to see the fountain where the poet Antonio Machado was with his lover, and also for the bottle of ratafia that the Catalan President gave the Spaniard. It is even recorded that after the meeting Sanchez was interested in this liquor and asked what was the best time of the day to taste it. There were no major agreements, beyond that of activating the Generalitat-State bilateral commissions, which would meet for the first and last time on August 1st of that year. Torra spoke to Sánchez of self-determination and political prisoners, and the Spanish President of dialogue within the law. The two sides, however, did note cordiality, an issue that did not seem so easy before it began, given that a few months earlier Sánchez had called Torra a "xenophobe" and a "Spanish Le Pen". They would not meet again at the presidential palace until the first and only meeting of the dialogue table, on February 26th 2020. Everyone was satisfied that day to have the two governments sit down at both sides of a table for dialogue, but there was no continuity. First the pandemic and then the back-and-forth excuses buried the negotiating table, which Sánchez and Aragonès will now have to revive.
Despite the meager results, Torra achieved something new with respect to his two predecessors: that it was Sánchez who went to Barcelona. First in December 2018 at the Palau de Pedralbes in the famous duel over whether the ponsetias in the presidential photo had to be yellow - as the Generalitat wanted because of the political prisoners - or red, as the Spanish government wanted. Torra took advantage of this to update Puigdemont's list of 46 demands. On February 6th, 2020 Sánchez would visit the Palau de la Generalitat to forge the basis of the dialogue table that would be convened a few days later. Two meetings in Barcelona and two in Madrid, but the same lack of concrete agreements.