FILE PHOTO: Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez speaks during a session at Parliament in Madrid, Spain, December 12, 2018. REUTERS/Susana Vera/File Photo
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is finding it difficult to heal relations with Catalonia © Reuters

After Pedro Sánchez ousted Mariano Rajoy in a no-confidence vote to become Spain’s prime minister, the centre-left socialist leader offered pro-independence parties in Catalonia “open, sincere and direct dialogue”, saying he wanted to “stanch the wounds” that he blamed on his predecessor’s lack of judgment and strategy.

But as Mr Sánchez prepares one of his government’s most significant engagements with Catalonia since entering office — taking his cabinet en masse from Madrid for a meeting in Barcelona and an expected encounter with regional leader Joaquim Torra — he is little closer to his goal.

Josep Borrell, Mr Sánchez’s foreign minister, has described the government’s approach to Catalonia as an “ibuprofen policy”, designed to bring down the inflammation of the past 14 months since Catalan leaders tried to engineer an independence bid. But he has admitted that the medicine is not working.

“What needs to be done is to try to bring down the levels of tension that were there when this government arrived,” Mr Borrell said last week. “You can say to me that that’s been done with little success. And I recognise that.”

Catalonia is still restive, with the regional administration pushing for a new independence referendum and radical separatists demanding that the administration make a previous declaration of independence “effective”. Spain’s conservative and rightwing parties are demanding a tougher response, including the suspension of the region’s autonomy. And Spain’s 2019 budget, a centrepiece of Mr Sanchez’s government, is still far from being passed because the prime minister has not secured Catalan support.

The cabinet meeting in Barcelona on Friday is deliberately symbolic, taking place on the first anniversary of a regional election called by Madrid after Mr Rajoy’s government suspended Catalan autonomy in the wake of the illegal independence referendum.

Mr Sánchez has described the meeting as a “show of affection to Catalan society”. But pro-independence groups are seizing the chance to protest, promising to hold rallies and block traffic. Some 9,000 national and regional Catalan police — known as the Mossos — will be on duty.

Any violent clashes would recall scenes of national police trying to break up the independence referendum in Catalonia last year — and drive Madrid and the Catalan regional government further apart.

“The government’s policy, with all its deficiencies, is the only one the only policy one can follow if you want to redress the conflict,” said Oriol Bartomeus, a politics professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. “The problem with the policy is that it has no allies in Spain and few in Catalonia.”

Many of the obstacles to Mr Sánchez’s approach are not in his direct control. The far-right Vox party won its first ever seats in a recent regional election in Andalucía, Spain’s most populous region, in part because of its calls to clamp down on Catalan separatists to preserve Spanish territorial unity.

With regional elections in the rest of Spain coming in May, Vox’s rise had pushed parties on the right — including the centre-right People’s party (PP) and the liberal Ciudadanos — to strengthen calls for government intervention in Catalonia.

“The PP and Ciudadanos know that inciting confrontation will have electoral returns,” said Mr Bartomeus. “What it does is benefit the extremes and empty the middle.”

In Catalonia, the two major pro-independence parties — the pragmatic ERC (Republican Catalan Left), and the more hardline Junts per Catalunya (JxCat) of Mr Torra and former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, who moved to Brussels to avoid arrest after the secession bid failed — are in tight competition to lead the separatist movement.

“The internal situation makes lowering the tone very expensive electorally,” says Berta Barbet, an editor at the politics blog Politikon.

Members of both parties have been in custody for a year or more awaiting trial for their roles in the 2017 secession attempt, which makes it politically more difficult for current leaders to talk to the national government and support the budget bill Mr Sánchez aims to pass.

“Imagine that you accept the budget and go to your base and say, ‘Our leaders are in jail but we’ve gotten €200m more for Catalonia,’” said Pablo Simon, professor of politics at Madrid’s Carlos III University.

Making the Catalan dynamic more difficult for the established pro-independence parties to control are the Committees for the Defense of the Republic (CDR) that sprang up in the wake of last year’s failed secession bid. Hardline grassroots groups that believe the 2017 independence referendum requires the Catalan government to definitively split from Spain, the CDRs have planned roadblocks and protests against Mr Sánchez’s visit.

Meanwhile, in the PSOE Mr Sánchez’s anti-inflammatory policy does not enjoy universal support. Some regional leaders worry that taking too soft a line with Catalan separatists will hurt them in upcoming elections.

The relationship between Mr Sánchez’s government and the regional administration of Mr Torra hit a low point this month, when the prime minister accused Catalan authorities of “unjustifiable inaction” in how they asked the Mossos to respond to a 15-hour CDR roadblock. Mr Torra urged Catalonia to follow the “Slovenian route” to independence, which kicked off the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia.

In recent days, however, the tone has softened, and on Wednesday Mr Torra asked for “effective, sincere and courageous dialogue on the part of the two parties” when he and Mr Sánchez and several members of their administrations meet.

“If the situation doesn’t get out of control, if it’s not violent, then the ball stays in motion,” said Mr Simon.

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