Catalonia 2021-2022: uncertain talks with Spain, infrastructure plans v climate change, and end of Covid

Wrapping up vaccinations, reactivating economy and make some progress in dialogue over independence issue, hottest topics of new season

The Ricarda lagoon, outside Barcelona airport, on June 9, 2021 (by Àlex Recolons)
The Ricarda lagoon, outside Barcelona airport, on June 9, 2021 (by Àlex Recolons) / Guifré Jordan

Guifré Jordan | Barcelona

September 6, 2021 05:19 PM

Hoping this is the first post-Covid year and not yet another completely conditioned by the pandemic, the 2021-2022 season in Catalonia kicks off after the summer break.

During the past few months, coinciding with the vaccine rollout and a greater control of the health emergency, other major pending issues that have been on hold since March 2020 have begun to be addressed again: from May, Catalonia has a new government with many unresolved hot topics, the nine pro-independence leaders who were in jail for over three years following the 2017 referendum were pardoned, and major social debates have been reopened: housing, women's rights, large infrastructure projects to boost the economy, the climate crisis

Yet, few of these issues, which will greatly impact the 2021-2022 political season, have been sorted.

The priority, nonetheless, continues to be Covid-19 and finding a way out of the pandemic. This is starting point of the Catalan News' guide to the main takeaways for the 11 months that lie ahead.

1. Wrapping up vaccinations and avoiding further waves

Catalonia just fell short of fully vaccinating 70% of its population by end of August, but will achieve this milestone very soon. Yet, experts who used to think this figure would mean acquiring the long-awaited herd immunity now admit that with the Delta variant, this is no longer the case. A higher percentage of people with the jab is needed, and as the pace of the rollout has dropped significantly, new messaging to encourage it is needed.

Also, a third booster dose for the most vulnerable might be required in the coming months, which will add to the workload of already exhausted healthcare staff – meeting some of their demands and strengthening the public health system may be needed to more successfully fight a future health emergency.

In any case, the health department fears a sixth wave of Covid this autumn – one of the challenges for both the authorities and the public is to avoid it. Appropriate measures but also everyone's individual responsibility despite the generalized pandemic fatigue will be key in the coming months.

2. Reactivating the economy

Unemployment is reaching pre-pandemic levels, so in some months, Catalonia might be on course to reducing the number of those out of work from levels not seen since the 2008 financial crisis – 14 years later, the low reached in 2007 has not yet been matched.

The annual growth in GDP for 2021 and 2022 is expected to oscillate between 6% and 7%, which would help ease the economic catastrophe of 2020.

However, sectors such as tourism, restaurants, culture and nightlife still have a long path of suffering ahead. Further reactivating them or offering an alternative will be on the cards soon.

The industrial transition towards greener energy is another debate ahead – the first millions in European Covid funds to be allocated to Catalonia have to be distributed in the coming months, while Nissan will close its production plants in the Barcelona area this December.

No alternative firms have been found to take over the carmaker's factories yet. Whether Catalonia will become home to Volkswagen's electric car battery factory in southern Europe, as it hopes to be, remains to be seen.

3. Large infrastructure projects vs the environment

The 2021-2022 season begins with a highly controversial issue on the table: whether to accept expand Barcelona's airport. On the one hand: increasing the facility's total passenger capacity by 15 million. On the other: the risk of damaging La Ricarda lagoon, a nature reserve in the area. Business leaders have been clashing with environmentalists, with the Catalan government is in favor of the works as long as the reserve remains untouched. Spain will decide on the matter in late September, but anything affecting La Ricarda will have to be approved by the EU.

Whether Catalonia makes a bid for the 2030 Winter Olympic Games will also be seen soon: the government views the Barcelona-Pirineus candidacy as an opportunity to better link the Catalan Pyrenees with the rest of the country and to develop its economy, but some locals and environmentalists are staunchly opposed. A people's vote on whether to bid will be held in the region in 2022, while the capital also aims to take part in the decision.

Indeed, Barcelona also has another pending issue: whether to approve another large infrastructure project to become the site of Hermitage museum on its seafront. The local council is reluctant to back the plans, greenlighted by the port, and this long-standing controversy is set to continue on into the 2021-2022 season.

4. Fragile, uncertain talks with Madrid

Covid-19 led to a certain hiatus of the independence issue as the top headline for a year and a half, but this could change from mid-September: with a Catalan government up and running after the February 14 election and with no further votes on the horizon, regular talks between executives in Barcelona and Madrid will be held, with the first one on September 16 or 17.

Catalonia aims to persuade Spain to agree on a negotiated independence referendum –despite the issue now appearing somewhat dormant among the public. Meanwhile, the latter wants to prioritize talking about sectorial issues, despite having recognized that there is a political conflict that needs to be addressed. Thus, the outcome of these talks remains uncertain, and also fragile, since both administrations often clash over all sorts of topics, and the junior partner in the Catalan government, Junts per Catalunya, openly questions whether there is any point in trying.

The commitment of the three pro-independence forces that support the government in Parliament is to try this path of dialogue for two years – but this is only on paper.

5. Ongoing 2017 referendum legal proceedings

The nine leaders who spent over three years behind bars for their role in organizing the 2017 referendum were pardoned by the Spanish government. Yet, the Supreme Court has to decide whether to revoke them, as requested by several right-wing appeals. The head of Spain's judiciary has recently criticized the decision to release the nine politicians and activists.

But trials over the 2017 events have not come to an end yet: dozens of senior officials during that period and businesspeople will face a trial on the referendum's logistics in the coming months, and prison sentences remain a possibility.

Spain's Court of Auditors will have its final say over requesting a multimillion-euro fine for around 30 former officials over the Catalan government foreign action expenses in the 2010s – including for activities that took place several years before the referendum with people not in office during the vote.

Other trials of protesters who took part in rallies after 2017 to oppose legal decisions, like the imprisonment of the nine independence leaders, will also end up in court themselves.

6. Narrative abroad and European courts

Former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and two other exiled leaders, now MEPs, have had their parliamentary immunity removed by courts although they are still granted access to the European Parliament. The issue of lifting their privileges is still in the EU court, as is a question from Spain's judiciary over European arrest warrant system criteria.

Once these two issues are resolved – perhaps not even in the 2021-2022 season – Spain will decide whether to attempt to extradite the exiles for a fourth time.

Meanwhile, although Catalonia is not at the top of the international agenda, a New York Times article reported on links between Puigdemont's aides and Russia in an attempt to find support for independence abroad – the article was criticized by the former president, who said either the police or the judiciary is "fraudulently leaking" information to international journalists in order to win the "war" for the narrative abroad.