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ANALYSIS: What's likely to happen when Spain's government heads to Barcelona?

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ANALYSIS: What's likely to happen when Spain's government heads to Barcelona?
Catalan regional president Quim Torra meets PM Pedro Sanchez in Madrid in July 2018. Photo: AFP
12:53 CET+01:00
Pedro Sánchez and his minority socialist government, only 84 out of 350 MPs in Congress, are warming up for their big trip to Barcelona on Friday.

After rapid accusations of cowardice from the right on the mere suggestion they might not go, they have decided that the cabinet meeting must be held right in the heart of separatist territory, in a place called the Llotja de Mar, next to the port, only 500 metres from regional government headquarters and only 700 metres from Parliament Park, where many of the major independence demonstrations have taken place or ended up over the past six years.

Police have described the location as “a rabbit warren” and advised against it, but have been overruled. Formally, the PM has said the trip is about a “show of respect and appreciation for Catalonia and Catalan society”, and that “within the Constitution we can talk about anything”.

In the north-eastern city, though, the regional First Minister, Quim Torra doesn’t want to talk about anything except referendums, independence and the release of separatist prisoners, none of which Mr. Sánchez can do anything about within the limits of the Spanish Constitution and the separation of powers. Neither the temporary suspension of home rule last year nor the restoration of the regional executive under Mr. Torra in May have solved the Catalan separatist problem to anyone’s satisfaction.

The new PSOE government did not take advantage of the (admittedly small) window of opportunity before the summer, when everything was fresh and new. Stagnation and mounting frustration have ensued. La Vanguardia reported this week that the Catalan Parliament, controlled by the separatist speaker Roger Torrent (ERC, Esquerra), has not passed a single new regional bill all year. Not one. They have just about managed three minor modifications to some existing legislation. All three right-wing opposition parties—the Popular Party, Ciudadanos and Vox—want Mr. Sánchez to suspend home rule again.

The more radical separatists have been increasing their calls for a more radical response. Last week the GAAR (“Autonomous Quick Action Groups”) appeared, calling for “boycott and sabotage”, and one of the founders of the now defunct Catalan marxist separatist terror group, Terra Lliure, posted a video on Facebook calling for revolutionary violence. Calls for energetic protest have continued over the weekend. “Let’s bring down the regime” seems to be the most popular slogan on the virtual posters shared by supporters.

The Catalan National Assembly is urging them to collapse the city in a giant traffic jam. “We want to make it clear that those who do not let us vote, who hit us, who want to stop us from protesting and, if they can, put us in jail, will never be welcome”, wrote one group on its Telegram channel on Tuesday morning. El País reported 9,000 police would be on duty on Friday, 8,000 of them Catalan Police officers, which is about the same number as were deployed for the illegal referendum on October 1st last year.

After Mr. Torra caused a stir with his comments on the “Slovene path” to independence, the current Prime Minister of Slovenia, Marjan Sarec, criticised that country’s President, Borut Pahor, for welcoming the Catalan leader two weeks ago. “We have good relations with Spain”, he said: “and we don’t like Slovenia being used in this fight of half the population of Catalonia for independence because we respect the law and we respect the internal affairs of Spain”.

A former Slovene Prime Minister, Alojz Peterle, told El País regarding the war, though, that: “The fact that it only lasted 10 days was a relief. We were able to block 800 tanks from the Yugoslav communist army. If we had chosen violence, we could have killed a lot of people. We tried to use the minimum force necessary”. Remember too that this year, on the first anniversary of last year’s vote and violence, Mr. Torra encouraged the radical protest groups and the mob ended up, that very evening, banging on the doors of the regional parliament, with the Catalan Police forced back inside.

It is not very often in modern politics that such a physical set piece event occurs. Having avoided the accusations of cowardice and the taunting headlines that would have ensued in the rest of Spain by pressing ahead with the meeting, the Prime Minister is nevertheless taking a big risk by moving his entire executive into what looks increasingly like it will be a giant separatist ambush in the centre of Barcelona, with all sorts of different groups, some focused on radicalism, some on more civic protest, seeking to create different kinds of unpredictable havoc.

From their perspective, such a direct challenge or intrusion into their worldview cannot go unanswered and, notwithstanding the police numbers and the efforts of officers to control the crowds and challenges, events often follow a course of their own once they begin. The easy drive in and out to the meeting—as would happen in any other city in Spain—already appears improbable, given protest groups’ stated intentions, their history of activity and the “rabbit warren” location, so it is now a question of how raucous, uncontrolled and violent the situation will become.

Footage of riot police hitting people with truncheons as the Spanish government holds a cabinet meeting only a few hundred metres away seems inevitable but other scenarios, in which the PM and his ministers are effectively stranded for some period of time, between the protestors and the port, until some solution is found, do not seem implausible. And it wouldn't get as ridiculous as Mr. Sánchez and his ministers being loaded on to a boat to flee the mob, as they shout "in-de-pen-dence" or "free the prisoners", would it? 

Matthew Bennett is the creator of The Spain Report. You can read more of his writing on Patreon, and follow him on Twitter. Don't miss his podcast series with weekly in-depth analysis on Spain.

 
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