Catalonia 2022-2023: turbulence expected over cost of living, drought, and political instability

Talks with Spain yet to yield major results as new electoral cycle begins, and independence exiles could be closer to know fates

The Siurana marsh in southern Catalonia (image loaned 'Le Sequera del 22')
The Siurana marsh in southern Catalonia (image loaned 'Le Sequera del 22') / Guifré Jordan

Guifré Jordan | Badalona

August 29, 2022 07:40 PM

Catalonia is returning from its summer break this week with several major topics to tackle in the upcoming year. The next few months are set to be as challenging, or even more so, than the biggest concerns of last year: putting an end to Covid-19 major effects. 

The pandemic is now clearly secondary for politicians and society in general – although the impending lifting of the face mask mandate on public transport is highly anticipated. 

The number one priority at the moment is to face the consequences of Russia’s war in Ukraine and the drought provoked by the lack of rain, but the current political situation is not as stable as the global context may require. 

This is the starting point for the Catalan News guide to understanding the 11 months that lie ahead.

1. Inflation still out of control, propped by energy

The Eastern European conflict has prompted a sharp rise in the cost of living, with energy prices still far higher than before the crisis despite measures to cap them taken by the Spanish government.

Catalonia is not expected to suffer especially from a potential lack of gas reserves this winter if Russia shuts the gas pipeline to Europe, because 80% of its imported gas comes from Algeria. Yet, some energy-saving measures are already in force and they could be reviewed this autumn. 

Public transport tickets will also be subsidized this autumn, with other measures on electricity prices and rent in operation – yet, the upcoming year will show whether these are enough, as the downward trend of unemployment continues.

Related to the energy crisis, a gas pipeline connecting the Iberian peninsula with France whose works were abandoned halfway in Catalonia, MidCat, could also be in the news in the coming months if Europe decides to finish it.

2. Water restrictions due to drought

A serious drought on an international scale is also hitting Catalonia hard and, with reservoir levels in the central and eastern thirds of the country already below 40%, some water restrictions are already in place.

In most of the land, households will barely notice, but if the level of water in reservoirs was to fall below 25%, some major restrictions on water use in urban areas would be introduced.

The drought is already bringing side effects, such as a decrease in hydroelectric production, crops, and water-related leisure activities, and more may come in the coming months. 

3. Government fragility due to independence camp split

The difficult global context comes at the same time that the coalition government in Catalonia has not had a stable majority in parliament for the whole year – also, the junior partner, Junts per Catalunya, could even potentially quit the cabinet this autumn. 

The political group is upset at the fact that its senior ally, Esquerra, contributed to the suspension of their party president, Laura Borràs, as parliament speaker due to her pending corruption trial (which could be announced during 2022-2023). They are also skeptical about the talks with Spain over the independence issue – they think there is no real negotiation about the underlying issue taking place, to the extent that they do not even take part in the discussions.

Junts is, at the moment, considering whether to ask their members if exiting the coalition is the way forward and on October 1, exactly five years after the independence referendum, will propose some fresh roadmap towards a split from Spain. 

Meanwhile, Catalan president Aragonès, who prioritizes negotiations with Spain, is expected to announce a plan to achieve self-determination in late September – both paths are expected to be completely different, as both parties have almost totally different approaches toward attempting to achieve their stated aims of independence.

4. Talks with Spain yet to yield major results

When Catalonia first launched a bilateral round of talks with the Socialist-led Spanish government in February 2020, both sides pledged to meet once a month to find common ground over the independence debate. 

Yet, since then, they have only met twice more: in September 2021 and in July 2022 – and with only half of the Catalan government participating. 'Dejudicializing' the political conflict has since been agreed upon, but only vaguely, and the coming months should cast fresh light on what (if anything) this turns into. 

Protecting the Catalan language was the other agreement – but meanwhile, Spain's courts are still deliberating whether Catalan should lose its four-decade-long status as the working language in schools. Updates on the issue are likely during the 2022-2023 school year. 

What is clear so far is that an independence referendum and an amnesty for those involved in independence-related judicial campaigns, the only two points of consensus among those who want to exit Spain, are not on Madrid's agenda.

5. Exiles and pardoned leaders closer to knowing their fates and referendum trials ahead

Dejudicialization is far from a reality at the moment. Several trials and judicial decisions are to expected to unfold in the upcoming year. In October, a former parliament speaker and chamber bureau members face a disobedience trial for allowing debates against the monarchy to take place in the parliament. High-ranking officials in 2017 including a current minister may also face trial for their role in the referendum, and those acting as electoral board members during the vote will see their trial repeated, with their prior acquittal at stake. An MP who rejected responding to cross-examination by far-right Vox during the independence leaders' referendum trial in 2019 will face trial on September 28, as it may also be the case of a former exile, Anna Gabriel.

Those in exile may also have updates: the EU court has to decide whether Belgium's reasons to reject extraditing one of the five left is lawful – its advocate general believes it is not. This could impact him as well as three more MEPs in Belgium, including former president Puigdemont. He and his two fellow MEPs are also waiting for an EU court decision on whether their immunity waivers last year was legal. If both decisions go against them, their extradition would be considered again by Belgium.

Also, those nine politicians and activists who were pardoned in June 2021 after a decade-long sentence for organizing the 2017 referendum could see this measure taken by the Spanish government overruled by the Supreme Court. In parallel, a European Human Rights Court ruling over their appeals to their convictions may still have to wait until the upcoming political years.

6. Local elections: the beginning of an uncertain new political cycle

On May 28, 2023, all 947 Catalan municipalities will elect their new local councilors, who will have to form majorities to elect new mayors. The most-voted candidate will get this position default otherwise. This will be a good test ahead of the Spanish election, expected in autumn 2023, and the Catalan one, not later than February 2025 – but snap elections cannot be ruled out. 

Uncertainty is the general feeling in the country, with volatility in the polls and no clear frontrunners. For instance, in Barcelona, anti-austerity mayor Ada Colau will vie for a third term, but pro-independence left-wing Esquerra's Ernest Maragall will try to frustrate it after already coming first in 2019. The Socialists are expected to run for the post with Colau's current second-in-command, Jaume Collboni, and they don't have bad prospects either. Current forecasts could take a turn if, in the end, former center-right pro-independence mayor Xavier Trias runs for Junts.