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Growing economy, stagnant talks with Madrid: Catalan government turns 1

Executive says it has already implemented a third of planned measures although key issues like Catalan in schools, Olympics and exiles remain unresolved

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24 May 2022 02:58 PM

by

Guifré Jordan and Gerard Escaich Folch | Barcelona

The Catalan government turns one this week and has already implemented some of the measures it pledged a year ago, but it still has a number of key issues that remain unresolved.

In a press conference held in the executive’s headquarters on Tuesday afternoon, President Pere Aragonès said around a third (33.8%) of all measures in the government plan for the entire term had already been implemented.

His party, Esquerra, began to lead the government last May for the first time in 80 years, after coming second in the February 14, 2021 election. Yet, unlike the Socialists, who had a larger share of the vote, Aragonès managed to garner the support of the pro-independence majority of MPs to back his presidential bid in parliament.

Independence issue: only one meeting with Madrid in one year

One of his top aims was to begin to negotiate with Spain over the independence issue, but despite both Barcelona and Madrid's apparent willingness to engage in talks, both sides have only met once in order to tackle the underlying political conflict. On September 15 last year they said they would continue to work together "discreetly" to find compromise.

Yet, no progress has been made since then, and the relationship between both cabinets has been marred by the Catalangate espionage scandal in which over 60 people with ties to the pro-independence movement were targeted with Pegasus spyware. In April, President Aragonès announced he was freezing relations with Madrid.

"We are still in touch, but we need to focus on content, not on taking a picture together," the Catalan chief said. Aragonès wants to persuade PM Pedro Sánchez to agree on an independence referendum and on an amnesty for all individuals involved in ongoing judicial cases stemming from the political conflict over the past few years.

Also regarding the independence issue, during the first year of the term, the Catalan leaders convicted for the 2017 independence referendum were pardoned by Madrid, but those in exile continue abroad pending a European court decision that they hope could see them returning.

Economy: unemployment 'lower than in Madrid'

During the press conference, both Aragonès and his vice president, Jordi Puigneró, said that the economy is growing, and recalled that Catalonia hit an all-time high in exports in 2021 and that unemployment is "lower than in Madrid." The current rate stands at 10.23%, around two percentage points lower than a year ago.

The economic recovery was one of the government's priorities a year ago, when Covid-19 was still hampering finances, and also now, as the war in Ukraine has also dealt a blow to businesses.

Large projects: airport expansion halted, Olympics up in the air

One of the big plans of the Aragonès cabinet is yet to achieve is the 2030 Winter Olympics in Barcelona and especially the Pyrenees. This is up in the air since the neighboring region of Aragon rejected a deal for a joint bid, the Spanish Olympic Committee's preferred option to back the initiative. While a solo candidacy for Catalonia is now on the cards, a binding popular vote on July 24 in the Pyrenees is also key.

"We want to reach a consensus, and if other territories have a certain stance, we are ready to go on our own," Aragonès said on Tuesday.

Other large projects such as the Catalan capital's airport expansion have been halted, in theory at least until 2026, due to environmental concerns in Catalonia but also due to internal discrepancies within the executive.

Political stability: fragile coalition and parliamentary support

Indeed, the fragility of the alliance between Esquerra and its junior partner Junts, which is also pro-independence, has been pretty evident during key moments. 

For instance, the latter was skeptical about sealing a deal with left-wing En Comú Podem for the 2022 budget, instead of CUP, the other party in favor of a Catalan state. Junts has also been far from enthusiastic about negotiations with Spain, to the extent that it rejected attending the September 2021 round of talks with Madrid on the grounds that the representatives the party had put forth were not approved.

Also, CUP backed Aragonès’ presidential bid, but its key votes to guarantee parliamentary support to the government ever since have vanished. Only a year after being launched, the cabinet needs to open talks with several parties for each key motion or bill

Language: Catalan immersion system at risk

Indeed, one hot topic that requires negotiations is the response to the Spanish Supreme Court ordering Catalan to no longer be the only working language in schools, but to introduce a 25% Spanish quota

“Parliamentary groups are working and I am sure they will reach an agreement,” Aragonès said on Tuesday, referring to a parliamentary bill and a government decree being prepared in order to maintain the current immersion system despite the judicial ruling. 

Yet, disagreements over this issue are also apparent, since in the same press conference, Junts’ Puigneró said that what is being prepared “does not guarantee at 100%” that the legislation on the works is enough to dodge the court’s decision.

Government plan: 30% to 40% implemented

All in all, the government’s two top leaders said that between 30% and 40% of the plan for the term has been already implemented in each of their main priorities. 

For instance, 39.3% of their environmental policies are now in place, while 35.6% of those relating to equality and welfare, 30.5% in digital policies and business, 29.2% with the aim of improving fairness and good governance, and 26.3% feminist and human rights policies have been implemented.

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  • President Pere Aragonès walks with vice president Jordi Puigneró before a press conference in the Government's HQ on May 24, 2022 (by Jordi Borràs)

  • President Pere Aragonès walks with vice president Jordi Puigneró before a press conference in the Government's HQ on May 24, 2022 (by Jordi Borràs)

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