Podemos chief meets with jailed Catalan independence leaders to discuss budget

Pablo Iglesias visited Oriol Junqueras and other separatist figures as he tries to garner support for the government’s economic plans

Pablo Iglesias (c) arrives at the Lledoners jail to visit Catalan jailed leader Oriol Junqueras.
Pablo Iglesias (c) arrives at the Lledoners jail to visit Catalan jailed leader Oriol Junqueras.LLUIS GENE (AFP)

The leader of Spain’s anti-austerity party Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, met with jailed leaders of the Catalan independence movement on Friday to discuss the government’s new budget.

Podemos reached an agreement with the Socialist Party (PSOE) government on a 2019 budget – which includes the biggest wage hike in 40 years – but the plan needs the support of nationalist and smaller parties if it is to pass.

The 17 members of Congress representing the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and the European Democratic Party of Catalonia (PdeCAT), however, have refused to negotiate the new budget unless the government offers a gesture of goodwill to the independence leaders who are being held in pre-trial detention for their involvement in last year’s unauthorized independence referendum and the unilateral declaration of independence.

I have never supported the separatist cause but I hope I never again have to go to a prison to speak with a political adversary

Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias

Ahead of the meeting on Friday, Iglesias said the detention of the Catalan independence leaders was a “political problem but so is the fact the Catalan people can’t make ends meet.”

During his four-hour visit, Iglesias spoke with the leader of ERC, Oriol Junqueras, who maintained that his party will not come to the negotiating table until the government takes “categorical” action in favor of the jailed independence leaders. Iglesias also spoke with ousted Catalan deputies Josep Rull and Jordi Turull from the separatist party Together for Catalonia, and Jordi Cuixart, the leader of pro-independence association Òmnium Cultural, all of whom are in pre-trial detention.

After leaving the prison, the Podemos leader said: “I have done my job. Now it is up to the government.” He added: “I have never supported the separatist cause but I hope I never again have to go to a prison to speak with a political adversary.”

ERC deputy Joan Tardà, who attended the meeting, thanked Iglesias for his visit and his “empathy and solidarity.”

“We will make an effort but the government has to as well,” he said.

As part of his bid to garner support for the budget, Iglesias also phoned ousted Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont on Sunday. According to Iglesias, Puigdemont, who is in self-imposed exile in Brussels after fleeing charges for his involvement in the independence drive, agreed on the need to “open spaces of political dialogue.”

“We talked for 45 minutes,” Iglesias wrote in a message on Twitter. “He invited me to a personal meeting. I thanked him and I will consider it but for the moment I think what’s most important is to maintain contact. We agree on the need to open spaces for political dialogue without excluding any issue.”

The government needs the support of Catalan nationalist parties to pass the 2019 budget

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez heads a minority government with just 84 lawmakers in the 350-seat Congress after he ousted former PM Mariano Rajoy from the Popular Party (PP) with a no-confidence motion, backed by nationalist parties ERC and PdeCat.

When Sánchez took office, it was assumed he would take a more conciliatory approach toward the Catalan separatist drive and convince the public prosecutor to drop the sedition charges against the leaders in pre-trial detention.

The Spanish government, however, has insisted that it cannot interfere in the work of the public prosecutor because that would blur the separation of powers.

Meanwhile, the future of the 2019 budget hangs in the balance. The PP and Ciudadanos, which will vote against the plan, hold 166 seats, meaning the government needs the support of at least one Catalan party and an abstention from the other, for it to be approved.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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