Spanish PM begins new term with fence-mending initiative in Catalonia

PP’s Mariano Rajoy sends deputy leader to arrange meeting with region’s pro- independence leaders

Heading a minority Popular Party (PP) government which is starting out on his second term after a 10-month political hiatus, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has put Catalonia among his top priorities. As a result, his deputy, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, will be spending a lot more time in the region.

Spanish Vice President Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría in Barcelona.
Spanish Vice President Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría in Barcelona.Albert Garcia

Sáenz de Santamaría spent Wednesday at her new office in the central government’s delegation in the Catalan capital of Barcelona, where she had lunch with business leaders and later meeting with center-right party Ciudadanos and the Catalan Socialists (PSC). Among her priorities will be arranging a meeting between Rajoy and Carles Puigdemont, the regional premier of Catalonia.

She will also face the longer-term challenge of improving lines of communication that have all but lapsed since Rajoy took office in late 2011, during which time Catalalonia’s regional parliament has pressed ahead with plans for independence, which include a referendum next year.

Rajoy  is holding a conference of Spain’s regional leaders in mid-January

Sources close to the cabinet describe the new strategy as “hard ball on legal issues, soft ball on politics, which is to say standing up to the separatist challenge but with a willingness to talk about everything else.”

Oriol Junqueras, the Catalan deputy regional leader, is due to meet with Sáenz de Santamaría in the coming days. He has already told media that he has 46 issues he wants to discuss, among them next year’s proposed referendum. On Tuesday, Santamaría reinforced the government’s line, saying she was happy to discuss any topic except independence.

Rajoy wants all his senior ministers to establish a presence in Barcelona and to meet not just with their opposite numbers in the regional government, but with representatives of Catalan society in general. The message is that his administration wants to hear as broad a range of views, beyond the voices of the pro-independence community. Hence Sáenz de Santamaría’s lunch with business leaders, who have expressed concern about the instability created by the lack of dialogue between the regional and central government.

At the same time, Sáenz de Santamaría’s presence in Catalonia is aimed at giving the PP, which has just 11 seats in the 165-seat regional parliament, greater visibility.

Rajoy wants all his ministers to spend more time in Catalonia

Sáenz de Santamaría will be hoping to persuade Puigdemont to attend a conference of Spain’s regional leaders in mid-January.

On Tuesday, Sáenz de Santamaría said that Rajoy will be sending an official invitation and that her task will be to put together an agenda “with content” sufficiently attractive to convince regional leaders it is worth attending the conference. Among the expected topics are the economy, regional government financing, employment, and the broader European context.

English version by Nick Lyne.


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