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POLITICS

Finally Spanish PM meets with Catalan separatist leader

Spain's acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy met Catalonia's separatist leader on Wednesday, a first in nearly two years as controversy rages over an independence drive in the wealthy, northeastern region.

Finally Spanish PM meets with Catalan separatist leader
Photo: AFP

Rajoy gave Carles Puigdemont, who has led the semi-autonomous region of Catalonia for three months, a copy of revered Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes' masterpiece “Don Quixote” before they began their closed-door talks at his official residence in Madrid.

Puigdemont was elected president of Catalonia's government in January with the task of fast-tracking the Spanish region towards independence from Madrid.

“I'm going with good will, but with reasonable scepticism too,” Puigdemont told reporters before heading the meeting.

There is little likelihood that anything will come of the meeting in Madrid as Puigdemont's position is radically opposed to that of Rajoy, who wants Catalonia to remain Spanish and refuses to allow a Scotland-style referendum on the issue.

Spain is also mired in political uncertainty as parties are unable to agree on a coalition government four months after inconclusive general elections, and Rajoy is currently only acting prime minister.

But the talks are still significant as the last meeting at this level dates back to July 2014 when then Catalonian president Artur Mas had asked for an independence referendum and more investment in the region.

Far from bringing them closer, though, the meeting at the time had triggered higher tensions between Madrid and Barcelona, the regional capital.

In November of that year, Catalonia's government went ahead and organized a symbolic poll in which 80 percent of the 2.3 million who cast their ballot in the 7.5-million-strong region voted for independence.

Then last September, a pro-independence faction won regional parliamentary elections, giving them an absolute majority.

Separatist lawmakers subsequently passed a motion in parliament calling for complete independence, although this was ruled illegal by Spain's Constitutional Court.

One of Spain's 17 semi-autonomous regions with its own language and customs, Catalonia already enjoys a large degree of freedom in education, health and policing.

But fed up after years of demands for greater autonomy on the taxation front – complaining it pays more to Madrid than it gets back – the region veered towards separatism.

Puigdemont is expected to ask Rajoy for more investment in Catalonia, greater leeway in the management of his heavily indebted region's deficit, and a referendum.

“The 16 times we have asked him will not stop us asking a 17th time,” he said on Wednesday in front of the regional parliament, before travelling to Madrid.

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STRIKES

Doctors, teachers and taxi drivers strike across Catalonia

Wednesday is due to be a difficult day in Catalonia with planned stoppages across three different sectors in health, education, and taxi services.

Doctors, teachers and taxi drivers strike across Catalonia

Medical staff

The union Metges de Catalunya has called for five days of strikes for doctors and medical staff across Catalonia on Wednesday, January 25th and Thursday, January 26th, as well as February 1st, 2nd and 3rd.

They are demanding more resources and personnel for the Catalan public health system and between 25 to 28 patient appointments per work shift of 12 minutes each.

READ ALSO – Key dates: How planned health service strikes in Spain could affect you

After an unsuccessful meeting on Tuesday, January 24th to try and resolve issues and further talks on Wednesday morning that didn’t lead to any resolution, 25,000 health professionals from health centers and hospitals across the region have been called to strike. They have not demonstrated en masse like this in Catalonia since 2018.

Some 500 nurses and midwives also took to the streets on Tuesday, January 24th to ask for better working conditions. Their protest continues this Wednesday, when both nurses and doctors have gathered to march to Sants train station, where they are due to arrive at midday. 

The regional government has agreed to guarantee urgent health care as well as that of the neonatal units and vital chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments.

Teachers

Teachers and other educational professionals have also been called to strike with two days of planned walkouts on Wednesday, January 25th and Thursday, January 26th.

After a series of unproductive negotiations with the Minister of Education, Josep Gonzàlez-Cambray, the unions Ustec, CCOO and UGT decided to go ahead with the stoppages.  

The unions have said that the simultaneous strikes in education and health make perfect sense as they are “two pillars” of society that should be a priority for the government.

The union Ustec demands that the regional government should invest 6 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) in public education as established by the Education Law of Catalonia. They are also asking to reduce the ratios in the classes and improve the working conditions of educational professionals. 

Schools will remain open during these days, however, and minimum services have been established such as guaranteeing 50 percent of the staff in special education centers and nurseries.

Taxi drivers

Taxi drivers have also joined in the protests and will stage a four-hour strike on Barcelona’s Gran Via this Wednesday, against driver apps such as Free Now, Uber and Bolt.

Negotiations between The Elite Taxi union and the city council broke down last week and the union has called drivers to gather from 10am to 2pm on Gran Via with Plaza Tetuán and on Passeig de Gràcia.

Taxi drivers will also be voting on whether to protest during the Integrated Systems Europe (ISE) and Mobile World Congress fairs. ISE will be held from January 1st to February 3rd and Mobile World Congress from February 27th to March 2nd.  

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