Collateral damage

Once again, the stubbornness of the Catalan independence movement is on full display. This week, two of the region's separatist groups - the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the Catalan European Democratic Party (PDeCAT) - announced that they will veto Pedro Sánchez's 2019 budget unless he makes some concessionary moves in favour of the pro-independence cause. Uncoincidentally, their latest ultimatum comes ahead of two key dates: February 12th, which is the last day on which their objections to the budget can be retracted; and February 13th, when the trials of prominent pro-independence Catalan politicians begin.

It's long been obvious that the Catalan independence movement doesn't care how its chaotically-pursued dream impacts on the rest of Spain. That indifference is on display again, manifested in the ERC and PDeCAT's intention to derail Sánchez's already-delayed spending plan: because the minority Socialist administration depends on those parties' votes to pass legislation, a joint veto would leave the country without a budget that should have been passed months ago. Ironically, Catalan separatists may also deprive themselves of a spending plan that addresses a long-held grievance of theirs - namely, that Catalonia contributes more money to Madrid's coffers than it gets back in public investment.

In a move that his Conservative predecessor Mariano Rajoy would never have made, Sánchez proposes to increase Catalonia's share of total regional spending to 16.8% in 2019, up from 13.1% last year. In throwing their latest tantrum, then, secessionists risk losing something for which they've been campaigning for years.

But the separatists are after more than just extra cash. The ERC - whose leader, Oriol Junqueras, is one of the politicians to go on trial next week - has requested that Sánchez makes "gestures" regarding either the jailed secessionists, or the possibility of a Madrid-sanctioned referendum on self-determination. If neither are forthcoming, say both the ERC and PDeCAT, then Spain can forget about its 2019 budget. Sánchez received the same threat last November from Catalan president Quim Torra. It didn't work: the government, Torra was informed, "does not accept ultimatums".

In negotiations with secessionists, Sánchez has always been clear about his immovable "red line": that no course of action in violation of the Spanish Constitution will be tolerated by Madrid. Despite this, though, his government has made steps towards reconciliation with Catalan separatists, and has even sought less severe legal action against those who are about to go on trial: the Solicitor General's office, which is controlled by the Ministry of Justice, upholds only the charge of sedition, rather rebellion.

Facing pressure from within his own party, as well as the main parties on the Spanish right - all of which are opposed to Catalan secession - Sánchez cannot realistically go further than this. It looks as if the 2019 budget will end up as collateral damage, the casualty of a remarkably stubborn Catalan independence movement.