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Catalan and Spanish governments resume bilateral commission meetings three years on

What’s at stake as both cabinets meet on Monday? Lack of investment, transfer of powers, and protection of Catalan language on the agenda

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02 August 2021 04:29 PM

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ACN | Madrid

Catalan government officials met with members of the Spanish cabinet in Madrid on Monday afternoon, in a push to resume the so-called Bilateral Commission forum three years and one day after it last convened.

Members of both governments, including Catalan vice president Jordi Puigneró and Spain's Territorial Policy minister Isabel Rodríguez, convened to address Catalonia’s long-running demands for greater investment in infrastructures, the transfer of greater political powers in areas like policing and social rights, or the protection of Catalan language in the audiovisual industry.

As announced later in the evening, the Spanish government agreed to invest 200 million euros in Catalonia, give the regional government full control of university scholarships, and consider further decentralization measures like the transfer of the Rodalies railways managed by state-owned Renfe.

Catalan officials described the deal as "insufficient" and urged Spain to transfer greater powers to Catalonia.

"Whatever happens in the next meetings we've agreed to hold will show whether the Spanish government really wants to expand Catalonia's self-government or not," said Puigneró.

With the relationship between Catalonia and Spain long tainted by the ongoing independence conflict, the heads of the two governments agreed in a meeting last June to work together in order to end confrontation and cool political tensions.

Catalan president Pere Aragonès and Spanish president Pedro Sánchez decided to resume forums like the bilateral commission and the so-called ‘negotiating table’, with the latter envisioned as facilitating dialogue to help address the independence conflict.

In contrast, the bilateral commission provides a framework for discussing more specific issues.

Ahead of the meeting, the Catalan government put together a list of more than 50 demands and unfulfilled promises from the Spanish cabinet.

Catalan officials urged the Spanish government to increase the investment in Catalan infrastructures to match Catalonia’s contribution to Spain’s GDP, as established by the Catalan Statute of Autonomy. According to the Catalan government, Spain owes Catalonia 559 million euros.

The Catalan government also wants to manage the targeted basic income (or minimum vital income), which came into force in June 2020, to better complement the subsidies already granted by regional authorities.

With the Spanish government preparing to pass a law to force Netflix and other streaming services to invest part of its revenues in local productions, Catalan officials want the new regulations to also benefit movies filmed in Catalan, Basque or Galician.

Three years on

The last bilateral commission summit between the Catalan and Spanish governments was held in 2018, months after pro-independence parties had backed the Socialist Pedro Sánchez to become president of Spain following a no-confidence vote against the conservative Mariano Rajoy.

With Rajoy being responsible for the 2017 crackdown on Catalonia’s unauthorized referendum, which left hundreds of voters injured and led to the imprisonment of Catalonia’s top political leaders, pro-independence parties were happy to oust the conservative leader from power.

Still, their relationship with Sánchez hasn’t been easy either, as both sides have often been wary of engaging in negotiations, and the Socialist leader has made it clear that he’s not willing to let Catalans vote in an agreed referendum.

But Sánchez’s recent pardoning of nine Catalan leaders jailed over the 2017 referendum push is seen as a step that could facilitate a better relationship with pro-independence parties—or at least with Esquerra, the party of Pere Aragonès, whose votes are crucial to ensure Sánchez has a parliamentary majority.

Criticism from pro-independence and unionist camps

The highest-ranking official from the Catalan government attending Monday’s meeting is vice president Puigneró, a member of the Junts per Catalunya (JxCat) party, which has often criticized efforts from their coalition partners Esquerra (ERC) to engage in dialogue with Spain.

"Our expectations are determined by what happened in the past, which is not a lot," said Puigneró ahead of the meeting.

Far-left CUP, the main ally of the pro-independence government in the Catalan parliament, said that the bilateral commission is not part of their roadmap, and they believe that a new referendum should be held in the coming two years regardless of whether Spain agrees to it.

On the other side of the political spectrum, right-wing unionist groups see the meeting as a "concession" by Sánchez and the Spanish government.

With Pere Aragonès recently deciding not to attend a meeting with all regional presidents in Spain, the unionist Ciutadans (Cs) party accused him of "despising" other Spanish regions and having a "superiority complex."

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  • Bilateral commission summit between Catalan and Spanish governments (by Gerard Artigas)

  • Bilateral commission summit between Catalan and Spanish governments (by Gerard Artigas)

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