Catalonia 2020-2021: extreme uncertainty over Covid-19 and independence

Dealing with outbreaks, vaccines, gloomy economic prospects and an upcoming snap election among main hot topics

Image of a Catalan parliament plenary session on July 7, 2020 (by Mariona Puig)
Image of a Catalan parliament plenary session on July 7, 2020 (by Mariona Puig) / Guifré Jordan

Guifré Jordan | Barcelona

August 31, 2020 12:34 PM

"This term has reached the end of the road." This sentence, uttered by President Quim Torra on January 29, seemed to set the agenda for 2020 in Catalonia. After serious and repeated disagreements between the two coalition government partners, Esquerra and JxCat, Torra agreed to call a snap election as soon the budget was passed in parliament, something that occurred on April 24.

Yet, and as was the case for most people and organizations worldwide, Catalonia's plans for 2020 met an unexpected bump in the road: Covid-19.

An improvised response to the ongoing health crisis, complete with its ups and downs, has monopolized the end of the 2019-2020 political year, postponing and leaving up in the air issues not currently considered priorities: the snap election, dialogue with the Spanish government on the independence impasse, the situation of the movement’s jailed and exiled leaders…

These issues all add to 2020-2021’s uncertainty, a political year already full of unsettled question marks due to the pandemic.

Let’s have a look at the seven key topics to take into account ahead of the 2020-2021 political season in Catalonia:

1. A society close to a standstill due to the pandemic

Will the 2020-2021 academic year be held successfully? Schools halted their activity in mid-March and education continued online, but it was not the same. Some students did not have laptops, some teachers struggled to engage all of their pupils, parents found it hard to care for their children while working from home… 

Authorities agree that schools must reopen to safeguard children’s right to education. The school year in Catalonia will begin on September 14 and protocols have been set up combining safety measures with learning, but who is to say that everything will go as planned?

Other sectors were also forced close to a standstill due to Covid-19 and many others continue seriously disrupted into 2020-2021: cultural activities such as concerts and shows, amateur and professional sports, large events such as professional fairs, tourism…

Big challenges lie ahead: to what extent will society be up and running again in the coming months? Normal activity in the near future would also include holding an election, but will everyone be able to vote, including those diagnosed with Covid-19?

2. Dealing with outbreaks and administering a vaccine to 7.5 million people

Catalonia has bought 1.45 million doses of the 2020-2021 flu vaccine, and although elderly people and pregnant women are strongly advised to get the shot, the health department only aims to persuade 75% of over 65s and 60% of soon to be mothers. In 2019, these figures were not achieved, with 51% and 29% respectively, despite marketing campaign efforts.

These findings suggest that administering a vaccine to large swathes of the population is far from easy – casting doubt on the ability to do so once a Covid-19 vaccine is developed.

How the Catalan health system will cope with distributing 7.5 million doses, one per inhabitant, might be key in the following months as the quicker and more efficiently this is done, the better for the country to overcome the crisis.

Coordination with Spanish authorities, work conditions, and resources for healthcare centers are set to play a decisive role in the vaccination process as well as in dealing with outbreaks.

The pandemic is not over, the vaccine will not be ready in the next few months, and lives still need to be saved. Clarity in terms of restrictions and the ability to promptly identify outbreaks and asymptomatic cases, as well as to conduct efficient contact tracing, is a concern for authorities and the public.

3. Gloomy economic prospects

20.1%: this is how much the Catalan GDP fell during the second quarter compared to the same time last year, while unemployment increased from 10.4% at the end of 2019 to 12.8% in June 2020.

These figures exemplify the economic setbacks faced due to the pandemic, and although there is greater economic activity now than in the spring, full recovery is still far off. 

What impact will this have on public policies? The government has flatly denied budget cuts are looming and claims that money from Spain and the EU will be arriving – something to be followed closely in the coming months.

Whether a parliamentary majority will be achieved to pass the 2021 spending plan is also up in the air.

4. Presidential post up for grabs

Quim Torra is unlikely to continue as Catalan president after October. He was barred from office for hanging signs in favor of the jailed pro-independence leaders on public buildings last December – yet, this ruling was not final and the Supreme Court will review his case on September 17.

Spain's top judges are expected to make a pronouncement on the matter a few weeks later. If they uphold the sentence, Torra will be removed from the office, and Parliament will subsequently have to choose his successor. Failure to reach consensus would mean a snap election in early 2021.

Yet, Torra has maintained his intention to call a snap election, meaning he could do so before the magistrates potentially force the country back to the polls. Torra could choose a date at some point in November.

5. Dialogue or confrontation with Spain?

Polls suggest pro-independence parties would once again obtain a majority of seats, although without reaching 50% of the ballots.

Yet, assuming that the two main parties in favor of a Catalan state, Junts per Catalunya and ERC, will enter a coalition again might be too daring.

They have repeatedly clashed during Torra's term for the same underlying reason: should the independence camp prioritize dialogue with the Spanish government, as ERC believes, or should the chosen approach be that of peaceful, democratic confrontation like in 2017, as Carles Puigdemont's Junts per Catalunya defends?

If these differences cannot be overcome, other actors could end up playing a role in government, such as the anti-austerity Catalunya en Comú party or the unionist bloc, depending on electoral results and agreements.

Talks between the Spanish and Catalan governments began in February but have been put on hold since then due to the pandemic.

6. Jailed leaders: amnesty, pardon, prison benefits, or a decade behind bars?

The fate of the nine politicians and activists who played a leading role in the 2017 independence push and who were sentenced to 9 to 13 years in jail could be ascertained in 2020-2021.

They were granted a more lenient prison regime allowing them to spend three days a week at home, but some of these have been provisionally overturned. The Supreme Court is yet to rule on the matter, and the Spanish government must respond to pardon requests by next summer.

The independence movement’s preferred way to release its prisoners would be with an amnesty law, and while persuading Spain's congress and senate to approve one seems unlikely, this could be discussed in potential new Catalonia – Spain talks.

Spain's Constitutional Court has to respond to the prisoners' last appeal in Spain… but we could still be waiting for their deliberation a year from now.

7. Narrative abroad and European courts

Former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and two other exiled leaders, now MEPs, will see a debate and vote on their parliamentary immunity take place in 2020-2021. If their privileges are lifted, Spain’s requests to extradite them will once again be active.

Yet, the Spanish judiciary's ordeal to have them sent back to Spain is set to continue after three attempts as another former government member in exile was recently successful in his case.

Meanwhile, jailed leader Oriol Junqueras, who was also elected MEP but removed at Spain's request, is still waiting for the European Court of Justice to rule on his parliamentary bid.