Catalan premier seeks to further independence cause during coronavirus crisis

Quim Torra’s regional government has been criticizing Madrid’s handling of the epidemic on a daily basis, and promoting the idea that an independent Catalonia would have handled the situation better

Catalan premier Quim Torra during a videoconference call on Friday.
Catalan premier Quim Torra during a videoconference call on Friday.Rubén Moreno / EFE

The Catalan regional government has ramped up its criticism of Madrid’s handling of the coronavirus crisis in recent days, and has been taking advantage of the emergency situation to strengthen its campaign in favor of an independent Catalonia.

The Generalitat, as the Catalan regional government is known, is promoting the idea that it is managing the health crisis much better than the coalition government in Madrid, which is run by the Socialist Party (PSOE) and its junior partner Unidas Podemos.

This is the message that Torra, a hardline separatist, and his government colleagues are transmitting on a daily basis, while at the same time announcing different measures from those being implemented by Madrid. Secessionist leaders are also conveying the message that an independent Catalonia would deal with the pandemic in better conditions.

Former deputy premier Oriol Junqueras accused the government of a “centralized, nationalist, militarist, oligopolistic and desperately inefficient” response to the coronavirus crisis

The clearest message has come from the president of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), Oriol Junqueras. The former Catalan deputy premier is currently serving a prison sentence for his role in the 2017 independence drive in the region, which saw an illegal referendum on secession from Spain, followed by the passing of a unilateral declaration of independence in the regional parliament.

Writing in La Vanguardia newspaper, Junqueras argued that the Spanish state “is not useful” for the Catalan people, and called for independence as the solution to the health emergency. “We urgently need our own state,” Junqueras argued, at the same time as accusing the government of a “centralized, nationalist, militarist, oligopolistic and desperately inefficient” response to the coronavirus crisis.

Criticism of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s management of the health emergency by the Generalitat are being accompanied by regional initiatives, which, given the state of alarm currently in place, require the authorization of the Health Ministry.

The latest measure announced by the Generalitat was consideration of a plan that would allow minors to leave their homes accompanied by adults

Healthcare is devolved to Spain’s 17 regions, but under the exceptional measures of the state of alarm – which was implemented on March 14 by Madrid – the central government now has overall control of each system.

The latest measure announced by the Generalitat was consideration of a plan that would allow minors to leave their homes accompanied by adults within a 10-day period.

Spain’s coronavirus confinement measures are the strictest in Europe, and do not allow children out onto the streets apart from under a handful of exceptional circumstances. After five weeks of total lockdown, there are rising calls among experts and members of the public alike for youngsters to be permitted some kind of access to the open air, given widespread fears for the effect that the confinement is having on the mental and physical health of minors.

The Generalitat’s plan to let children out of their homes is in contrast to its calls until recently for a total lockdown to remain in place. The Catalan regional government opposed the return to work last week of non-essential workers after a two-week “hibernation” of the economy by the Spanish government.

“How can we explain to our children that the government has decreed that a million Catalans go out to work from Tuesday but that they cannot?” asked regional interior minister, Miquel Buch, while at the same time criticizing what he called the “semi-confinement that Madrid declared” in reference to the relaxation of the state of alarm from Monday April 13 (which was a holiday in some regions, including Catalonia, hence Buch’s reference to Catalans returning to work on Tuesday).

In Catalonia there will only be one plan, which will be the one that is signed and approved by the Govern
Meritxell Budó, Govern spokesperson

“The deconfinement was premature,” added Catalan health chief Alba Vergés, who this week pointed out once more that the Generalitat has drawn up its own plan, seperate from what the central government is saying, “because each region is different and the pandemic is not having the same effect and has gone at different speeds.”

The study she referred to is being led by epidemiologist Oriol Mitjà, who has already drawn up a similar plan for the government of Andorra. The stance was echoed by Meritxell Budó, who is the spokesperson for the Govern, the executive branch of the Generalitat. “In Catalonia there will only be one plan, which will be the one that is signed and approved by the Govern,” she said.

But while the state of alarm is in place – until April 26, but this is likely to be extended by the Congress of Deputies to May 10 – the Health Ministry has power over all of the regions when it comes to healthcare, and can veto any agreements reached by regional governments.

Hours before announcing a plan to allow children out of their homes, the Generalitat began to implement a new methodology for counting coronavirus victims, using data supplied by funeral services. The information did not take into account where the victim had died nor whether they had been tested for the coronavirus, and increased the number of suspected Covid-19 fatalities in Catalonia by 3,000.

Torra himself has called on the World Health Organisation (WHO) to employ this methodology and not the one it has been recommending, and which is being used by the Spanish government and many other European countries, albeit with some variations.

Tensions over masks

There were also tensions when the Spanish government sent 1,714,000 masks to Catalonia, a number that Madrid claimed was based on calculations of the population but that happens to coincide with the year 1714, which was when Barcelona was under siege by Borbón troops during the War of the Spanish Succession.

Interior Minster Buch issued a solemn warning to the Spanish government, saying that it “should not play with the history of the Catalans.” Former Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont, who fled Spain to avoid arrest in the wake of the 2017 independence drive, voiced similar criticism of the incident via a tweet.

The state of alarm has been widely rejected from day one by the Govern, given that it re-centralized not just powers in terms of healthcare, but also those of the Interior department. This is despite the fact that much of the day-to-day management of the situation is still being performed by the Generalitat, and, in the case of the handling of senior homes, for example, has proved to be highly inefficient.

The Govern was also highly critical initially of the central government’s decision to deploy military units in Catalonia. The Military Emergency Unit (UME) has been carrying out a wide range of tasks across Spain, such as disinfecting senior residences. Buch initially said the move was “unnecessary,” and that “in Catalonia we don’t need this.” Ten days later, however, on March 28, the interior chief did an about face, and there were calls from the Generalitat for the UME to disinfect a residence for minors in Badalona.

The message of the Generalitat has been repeated over and over again during the crisis: “The government of the Spanish state,” as Buch refers to Madrid, is doing nearly everything badly and too late, and is not giving the Generalitat “the tools” it needs to deal with the crisis. In press conferences, the underlying idea being transmitted is that an independent Catalonia would not have suffered so much during this crisis.

English version by Simon Hunter.