The previous meeting between Mariano Rajoy and Artur Mas finished with a rhetorical door slam which put an end to a two-year-long pact between the latter’s CiU Catalan nationalist bloc and the prime minister’s Popular Party (PP) in the region. Mas immediately called early elections under the banner of a clearly separatist stance. The Catalan premier and conservative leader of Spain last week faced each other once more, but both the form and content of this meeting underline just how much CiU’s circumstances have changed since that 2012 encounter, and not exactly for the better.
Far from the nationalistic bluster surrounding last September’s falling-out, extending even to the welcoming of Mas as a national hero in Barcelona’s Sant Jaume square, this time the proceedings were carried out in complete secrecy. Setting aside the negative implications for democracy when two of a country’s leading officials should avoid any public comment on the matters under discussion, this furtive encounter has huge political significance, showing that the Catalan chessboard is changing — and fast.
First of all, the meeting demonstrates the precarious position Mas is in having failed to secure the “exceptional majority” he had sought in that snap election. Having hoisted the separatist flag, CiU is now uncomfortably in the hands of ERC, its leftist-nationalist parliamentary partner. After just three months, CiU is already putting out feelers to other possible allies, while the accord with ERC does not even suffice to guarantee that Mas’s administration can pass the next budget. Within the bloc, there is concern that the deal with the Republican leader Oriol Junqueras could turn out to be fatal trap, from which CiU will see its electorate diminish yet further. Mas has now had time to realize that basing his entire strategy on the sovereignty drive is not only limited in political terms, but it is also weakening support from key economic sectors.
The major problem now is that the Generalitat finds itself in such a strangled financial plight that it needs Madrid’s help in order to govern on a day-to-day basis. A government that cannot pay its pharmaceutical bills from November and December and is unable to meet its own austerity targets is anything but proudly autonomous. This is the underlying paradox: Mas has his hands tied by the ERC-driven sovereignty platform, but his government cannot breathe without oxygen from the central administration. He desperately needs Rajoy’s government to ease the region’s deficit target for 2013 from the present 0.7 percent of GDP, as cutting 4.4 billion euros from the budget entails an unbearable political burden.
The positive aspect of this situation is that it obliges all concerned to engage in a realistic dialogue. CiU’s sounding out of the PSC Catalan Socialists is something to be welcomed, therefore. Although the PSC’s reticence is easy to understand, given the shabby treatment it received from Mas after supporting his first investiture as Catalan premier, this move does at least augur a return to the central ground which CiU should never have left in the first place.