Government, airport authority rule out El Prat expansion due to differences with Catalan politicians

A row broke out despite the deputy premier of Catalonia having signed a deal covering the €1.7bn project. The tensions are throwing into doubt plans for talks over the future of the region

Transportation Minister Raquel Sánchez pictured in Barcelona on Wednesday.
Transportation Minister Raquel Sánchez pictured in Barcelona on Wednesday.EUROPA PRESS (Europa Press)

The Spanish government and state airports authority Aena are ruling out any expansion plans for Barcelona’s El Prat airport until at least 2026, after the announcement yesterday that the planned investment of €1.7 billion for the project was being put on hold due to differences with the Catalan regional government.

Raquel Sánchez, the minister for transportation, mobility and urban agenda, said during an interview with the Cadena SER radio network today that this was “a missed opportunity,” but added that the project could not be taken to the Cabinet “in these conditions.” September 28 is the deadline for the approval of the document known as DORA that regulates Aena’s investments and tariffs for the next five years, and which originally included the expansion of El Prat, due to have been completed by 2031.

The problems began last week, when the DORA document was released publicly. In it, for the first time in official documents, there was mention of the fact that expanding the runway would affect a nearby protected natural area called La Ricarda. There was, however, a condition that the project would not go ahead unless it received environmental approval from the European Commission, as well as the Catalan government and the central Ministry for Environmental Transition.

The Catalan premier claimed that Aena was using ‘blackmail’ and accused the central government of wanting to impose its own model

The Catalan regional government is run by a coalition of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and Together for Catalonia (Junts), both of which are in favor of independence for the region and have had highly strained relations with the central government in recent years due to their drive for secession, which came to a head in 2017 with an illegal referendum and subsequent unilateral declaration of independence.

After learning of the details of the project’s potential environmental impact, the mayor of El Prat, who opposes the expansion of Barcelona airport, accused the regional government of having agreed a deal that would compromise the protected area. Regional premier Pere Aragonès (ERC) later demanded that Aena offer explanations and rectify the documents. His party issued a statement against the terms of the DORA document, while Junts remained quiet, with party member and deputy premier Jordi Puigneró having managed the negotiations of the deal with the central government. Aena responded saying that nothing included in the deal overstepped what had been agreed with the regional government.

When news of the shelving of the project broke on Wednesday, Puigneró voiced his disappointment at the central government’s decision, which he described as “unilateral.” However, he also criticized his governing partner ERC for having questioned the investment in a “frivolous” manner.

On Wednesday, regional premier Pere Aragonès avoided responding to the criticism from Puigneró and limited his response to an extensive tweet, in which he reiterated the message of his party. He claimed that Aena was using “blackmail” and accused the central government of wanting to impose its own model, “destroying a natural and protected space and without listening to the territory or the regional government.” He concluded: “Once again the need has been ratified for Catalonia to decide its own political future.”

Catalan regional premier Pere Aragonès in a recent file photo.
Catalan regional premier Pere Aragonès in a recent file photo.Mònica Torres

The chairman of Aena, Maurici Lucena, also suggested that the expansion plan should be revisited “within five years, if the circumstances in Catalonia have changed and there is a political substrate that sees the investment as more adequate.”

Minister Sánchez, meanwhile, squarely blamed the suspension of the project on the shifting position of the regional authorities. “An investment like this one requires a firm consensus and joint action from both administrations, something that is not present given the change in criteria by the [Catalan regional] government,” the minister added.

She explained that objections to the project voiced by Aragonès, as well as part of the Catalan government, showed that their position was not “mature” and that there was a lack of a “clear consensus.” What’s more, she pointed out, some members of the Catalan Cabinet had even announced that they would attend a demonstration against the expansion plan. This, she continued, showed that “it makes no sense” to claim that this is the moment “to carry out [the project].”

The minister added that the €1.7 billion that had been earmarked for the project cannot be diverted elsewhere, given that the budget was to be funded by airport taxes, the majority of which come from international flights. “If the project does not happen, the taxes that allow for the investment will not be generated,” she explained.

The minister added that the rest of the investments planned for Catalonia at Reus airport in Tarragona and Girona-Costa Brava would be maintained, as well as improvements to the high-speed train line in Girona and the line that connects Reus airport.

The chairman of Aena added his voice to the minister’s comments, and accused Pere Aragonès of having used public statements to reject and “deform” the project to expand the airport, despite it having been accepted by his deputy at the meeting with the central government at the start of August.

“On August 2 we were all very happy,” he said, speaking during an interview on Catalunya Ràdio. “We knew that there was a lot of work to do, but we had reached a deal,” he added, after analysis that he says was carried out jointly between the central government, the Catalan government and local authorities. Lucena explained that it was common knowledge at the meeting “from the start” that extending the runway to the east would affect the protected natural area of La Ricarda but that work would be done to try to minimize this and that compensation would be sought under Spanish law.

“One of the parties that reached this agreement has left,” Lucena continued. “I don’t want to create controversy, but all you have to do is look at the news stories from the last five days about the opinion of the [Catalan] government regarding the deal that had been reached, saying that this deal had not created consensus in the heart of the government. It was very strange.”

For Lucena, the suspension of the project is a “pity for Barcelona, for Catalonia, and obviously for Aena, which had proposed the investment and was going to pay for it.”

Government talks

The row is also serving to complicate even further planned talks between the central and regional governments over the future of Catalonia. The decision by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in June to grant pardons to the politicians and civic leaders who had been jailed over their role in the 2017 Catalan independence drive – including former deputy premier Oriol Junqueras (ERC) – had served to calm the waters between the two sides.

For now, no one is suggesting that the upcoming meeting between the two governments be delayed, and ERC as well as Sánchez’s Socialist Party (PSOE) and his coalition partner Unidas Podemos are working to save the situation. Junts, for its part, is more skeptical.

But with a week to go until the planned meeting, nothing has been agreed, not even the presence of the prime minister at the talks. There are, however, suggestions that this is a negotiating tactic and that once the date has been set he will attend.

In the wake of the cancelation of the El Prat expansion plans, on Thursday Pere Aragonès hardened his tone about the central government, accusing it of trying to “blackmail” Catalonia and avoid “dialogue and consensus.” He also called for the management of El Prat to be transferred to his government and said bluntly: “We have no confidence in the state.”

He did confirm that he has no plans to cancel the upcoming talks. “I will not forfeit the defense of the right to self-determination over blackmail related to the expansion of the airport,” he added on Thursday.

Based on reporting by Dani Cordero, Bernat Coll, Ramón Muñoz, Marc Rovira, Carlos E. Cué and Camilo S. Baquero.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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