Cristian Segura. 4/4/2021
Pere Aragonès, with his parliamentary group, addresses the second plenary session. MASSIMILIANO MINOCRI / EL PAÍS
Catalan politics resembles quicksand that paralyzes and even engulfs its protagonists. Its immobilizing effect is perceived in the day-to-day running of the institutions and on great occasions, such as on March 5, when Seat presented its plan to establish in Catalonia, together with the Government and Iberdrola, one of the leading factories in Europe of batteries for electric cars. The event, on the 70th anniversary of the automobile brand, was attended by President Pedro Sánchez, the King and the head of the Volkswagen group, Herbert Diess. In the midst of the worst economic and industrial crisis in decades, the Generalitat was absent.
The vice president of the Generalitat and candidate for the presidency, Pere Aragonès, alleged that the presence of Felipe VI was incompatible with his attendance. The top executive of Volkswagen left Catalonia without having exchanged a word with the authorities of the autonomous community. “If this monumental error symbolizes something, it is that, in economic policy, the Generalitat has gone from being central to secondary,” says José María Álvarez, secretary general of the UGT. “It is not only a contempt for the highest representatives of Spain, it is [also] for the employees of Seat. But the next day no one misses them. If something denotes, it is your weight loss “
It has not been the only sounded absence of the Catalan Executive. The Commissioner for the Internal Market, Thierry Breton, visited the Reig Jofre plant this March, the company that will produce the vaccine against covid-19 for the pharmaceutical company Janssen, in Sant Joan Despí (Barcelona). No representative of the Generalitat accompanied Breton, as criticized by the leader of the Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya (PSC), Salvador Illa. The commissioner was accompanied by the Minister of Industry, Reyes Maroto.
Aragonès assured last Tuesday, in the failed investiture debate, that ERC and Junts per Catalunya had managed in recent years “to move Catalonia forward as never before”. This triumphalism contrasts with what happened in the previous legislature, which the former Catalan president Quim Torra declared dead in January 2020 due to conflicts between partners. The words of Aragonès also contrast with important economic indicators: Madrid is since 2017 the autonomous community with the highest GDP in Spain, a first place that had traditionally been in Catalonia. According to data compared by the Spanish Chamber of Commerce, if in 2015 and 2016 Catalonia was the third autonomous community with the highest GDP growth, as of 2017 it fell to the eleventh position.
All of this has a direct impact on the day-to-day life of the Catalans, who see governments go by at full speed without solving key issues. The paralysis of the last decade has led the Barcelona City Council to advance funds for works that the Generalitat should have addressed, accumulating a debt of 270 million in 10 years, the equivalent of 9% of the municipal budget. And there are still lame key projects such as line 9 of the Catalan capital metro, which Jordi Pujol devised at the end of the nineties and still does not have an end date. Investment in social services in Barcelona has also suffered: of 10 facilities for the elderly (with 1,200 residential places) that the Generalitat has pending to build since 2011, only four have been completed, with less than a quarter of the places committed. Other less ambitious projects, such as the so-called T-Mobilitat, the public transport card that has to facilitate intermodality in the metropolitan region, accumulates years of delay and additional costs of more than 24 million. And, again, it has no date to be a reality. Neither does the one that was the star project of the presidency of Artur Mas, the future leisure complex next to Port Aventura (Tarragona), in which the Generalitat has committed 100 million and which accumulates judicial and administrative blows.
Foreign investment has also been losing steam for some time: if between 2012 and 2019 it grew by 65% in the whole of the State, in Catalonia it did so only 40%, according to data from the Ministry of the Economy. In 2020, foreign investment fell in Spain by 0.8%; in Catalonia, 22%. Also in renewable energies, one of the most important challenges facing Europe, the autonomous community is in the tail wagon: if in Spain clean energies already contribute 54% of installed power, in Catalonia they represent 30%, according to Red Spanish Electric.
“Catalonia is in decline,” the historian and leader of the new Esquerra Verda party, Andreu Mayayo, said last Wednesday in the digital Crític: “We have leveraged ourselves, there is more push from civil society in Madrid than in Catalonia.” It is symptomatic, the opposition denounces, that the greatest obstacle in the negotiations to form a Government between ERC and Junts is the Consell per la República, the organization led by Puigdemont from Belgium, and not the shock plans to face the pandemic and its consequences.
Catalonia is politically bogged down by the division into two blocks, the pro-independence and the constitutional, the prioritization of the plan to achieve secession and the confrontations between the parties of Catalan nationalism. Since 2010, five regional elections have been held and two of its three presidents, Carles Puigdemont and Torra, have been removed from their functions; the first after fleeing to Belgium to avoid being judged by the unilateral independence consultation, and the second for disobeying the Central Electoral Board.
A thermometer of the blockade is the more than 100 positions, of 25 public organisms, that are waiting for the autonomic parliament to renew them. The most paradigmatic case is that of the Catalan ombudsman, the Síndic de Greuges, Rafael Ribó, in office since 2019. Finding a replacement is an almost impossible mission because it requires a three-fifths majority of the Chamber. The direction of the Catalan Data Protection Agency has also not been renewed since 2017 and more difficult is the election of the Presidency and the governing council of the Catalan Audiovisual Media Corporation, on which TV3 and Catalunya Ràdio depend, which require a majority two-thirds. The presidency of the body has been in office since 2018.
Illa denounced, while still Minister of Health, that the instability had made Catalonia lose the opportunity to host the headquarters of the European Medicines Agency. The decision was made in November 2017, shortly after the intervention of the Generalitat by the central government. “We have been ten years, which are said soon, without any person in charge of the Generalitat has been received by an EU commissioner,” Illa said recently in reference to the meeting between Artur Mas and José Manuel Durao Barroso in March 2011, the last meeting between a president of the Generalitat and another of the European Commission. Jordi Bacaria, professor of Applied Economics and former director of the Cidob international studies center, remarks that the lack of harmony between the Generalitat and the central Executive, but also the threat of street altercations, have prevented Barcelona from hosting high-level European events. After the violent days that followed the imprisonment of Pablo Hasél, last February, the Catalan employers parked their differences in an unusual and forceful manifesto in which they criticized the Generalitat for not condemning the altercations or supporting the Mossos d’Esquadra.
The employers also proposed a “country pact”, based on a “broad political and social consensus”, as an “urgent and essential” need. The Círculo de Economía also assured in March that urban vandalism is “the most alarming consequence of the immobility in which politics is trapped” in Catalonia. “Her continued paralysis […] makes her irrelevant, and her disempowerment impacts a society that is partly angry and partly hopeless,” he warned. Aurora Catà, president of Barcelona Global, is of the opinion that “a government must be established without further delay” to once again position Catalonia among the most dynamic regions in Europe. For her, Catà, “complicity with the private sector will be essential and understanding with the rest of the administrations a sine qua non condition”.