the euro zone

Let's talk

Judging by the reception he received on a visit to Barcelona last Friday, the Spanish king is now the most reviled public figure among Catalan separatists - a position previously occupied by Mariano Rajoy. Felipe VI was in the Catalonian capital to attend a memorial service for the 16 people killed in a terrorist attack on Las Ramblas last August; he paid his respects under a huge banner reading (in English), "The Spanish king is not welcome in the Catalan countries." Another banner read: "Free political prisoners. Without them this ceremony is a scam."

Felipe VI's presence at the memorial service was bound to outrage secessionists. At the height of Catalan chaos last October - when the region's former president, Carles Puigdemont, held an independence referendum deemed illegal by Spain's highest court - the king gave a speech in which he pledged to preserve the unity of Spain. He thus aligned himself with Rajoy's "zero tolerance" policy towards the secessionists. In doing so, Felipe VI became even more hated than he already was amongst pro-independence, anti-monarchy Catalans. No wonder, then, that some of this cohort thought it a joke in extremely bad taste that the king showed up in Barcelona last week.

But what of Spain's new Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez, who stood next to the king during the memorial service? His presence in Barcelona was quietly tolerated, but the PSOE leader's stance on Catalan independence is, essentially, the same as his predecessor's and Felipe's. He is committed to the unity of Spain and (therefore) opposed to the secessionist project.

Sánchez is such a smooth operator that this fact is not yet widely known. One of his first acts as prime minister was to arrange a meeting with Catalan president Quim Torra; after said get-together, both men enthused that they had shared their respective "visions of Catalonia" with each other. Since then, Sánchez's favourite word when talking about the Catalan problem has been "dialogue". "We will always offer dialogue", the PSOE leader said earlier this month, "but with the constitution in hand".

A killer caveat, that. Because as far as Sánchez is concerned, the dialogue can only go so far, and the end-point comes long before the prospect of Catalan independence is reached. All he's done so far is hint at the possibility of handing Catalonia even more independence from central government than it already has - a move that would justifiably infuriate most Spaniards.

More tellingly, Sánchez has refused to release the Catalan separatists who are still in custody for their role in engineering last October's referendum; indeed, he won't even call them "political prisoners". As he recently reminded everybody, he'll always have the constitution "in hand" when dealing with Catalonia - presumably so he can hit Torra over the head with it if their dialogue reaches an impasse.