The post-election scenario
Politics 22/02/2021

Elections revive negotiating table one year later

New political situation makes reactivation possible after year in paralysis

4 min
Quim Torra and Pedro Sánchez strolling through the Moncloa before the first meeting of the dialogue table.
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BarcelonaNext Friday will mark a year since the first and only meeting so far of the negotiating table, the first attempt by the Catalan administration -known as Generalitat- and the Spanish government to find a negotiated solution to the Catalan political conflict. The staging and the media expectation were those of the great occasions, but it did not go beyond this: a single meeting in 365 days which bore no fruit. In spite of everything, the election results of February 14 provide an opportunity to reactivate the negotiating table.

From that first and only meeting the image that remains is that of the Spanish and Catalan ministers in the gardens of Moncloa, the Spanish presidential palace. And also that of the two presidents, forgetting for a moment old fights as when Pedro Sánchez accused Quim Torra of being "racist" or when Torra said that without a mediator there would be no negotiation. "Everything was prepared in detail," recalls one of the protagonists of that walk, who says that the conversation did not go beyond chatter about what how nice the weather was - too hot for the Madrid winter. Once inside, coffee, tea biscuits and three hours of a meeting that, despite not bringing great solutions to the conflict, did serve to take on a remarkable commitment: the negotiating table would meet once a month alternately between Madrid and Barcelona.

While the meeting was taking place, in an adjoining room the teams of advisors from each delegation were negotiating against the clock to produce a joint communiqué. One of those present recalls that "the sticking point" was whether to include in the text a mention of the fact that any eventual future agreement had to be within the framework of the law. The Generalitat did not want this. They took the unfinished text into the room where the two governments were meeting and finally included a mention of the need for any future pact to have "legal certainty", an ambiguous term that made it possible to satisfy both sides. The negotiating table has a future.

Negotiating table meets in Madrid on 26 February 2020

Those were the last days in which it was still very strange to see people wearing masks in the street and that same Wednesday in Madrid the Santiago Bernabéu was filled with 76,000 people to see Madrid lose to Manchester City in the last sixteen of the Champions League. Nobody was aware of what was about to come. But the pandemic arrived and masks became ubiquitous, football pitches empty and the negotiating table was put on pause. First, the dialogue was put on hold by mutual agreement between the two governments to focus on the health crisis, but when the Generalitat wanted to reactivate it - pushed above all by ERC - the PSOE began to string together excuses. Then came Torra's disqualification, the interim government and the 14 February elections. There were no more meetings and everything was abandoned.

ERC vindicates itself

And what elements allow us to think that it will now have a new opportunity? Firstly, ERC has become by a narrow margin the leading pro-independence party in the Catalan Parliament, and the negotiating table is above all ERC's idea, which it now wants to try to make work. When not even 48 hours had passed since the 14 February election, the leader of ERC in Madrid, Gabriel Rufián, already warned: "The electoral results support our strategy in Madrid. The problems cannot be postponed, the negotiating table has to be convened and respected," he said. In Calàbria Street in Barcelona, headquarters of the ERC headquarters, they are engaged in negotiations to close the investiture of Pere Aragonès, but the negotiating table is already in everyone's mind. "We understand that a new opportunity now arises to resume the negotiation in whatever way," they argue. And they point out that the Generalitat will gain two strengths compared to a year ago: a "renewed" government -if it manages to materialise- and "more strength" after the independence movement has managed to overcome the barrier of 51% of the votes.

However, nothing will be immediate. The same ERC sources who maintain that "the polls support" the path of dialogue admit that this is an issue that will also have to be addressed in negotiations with JxCat and the CUP. These two parties have always shown misgivings towards this instrument and have opted more for the path of confrontation. Even so, last Tuesday Catalan government spokesperson and elected MP for JxCat Meritxell Budó also floated the idea of reactivating the negotiating table. "It would have to be able to be held in Barcelona because the commitment was that the next meeting would be held here," she said.

And what does the Spanish government, which is the one that has to sit on the other side, say? From the Moncloa they refer to the document that the Congress approved in the first week of the electoral campaign. A motion voted on by PSOE, Unidas Podemos and ERC in favor of convening the negotiating table "immediately once a new [Catalan] Government is constituted" after the elections of February 14.

The various uncertainties

There is nothing to suggest, however, that the road ahead is much more passable than it was a year ago. For example, the part of the Generalitat is calling for self-determination and amnesty, but these are two issues that the PSOE completely rejects. What, then, could the path for negotiation be? It will also have to take into account all the distorting elements that will come from outside. From the Public Prosecutor's Office fighting against the political prisoners' transfer to an open prison and the three right-wing parties charging against "concessions" to the always fragile pro-independence unity, which often translates into disagreements over which strategic path the Independence bid should take.

Be that as it may, the political situation has undergone changes in favour of negotiation and when the Generalitat is constituted it will have a new opportunity to get back on track. With all the uncertainties still in place, but also with renewed expectations, one year later.

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