The King's speech

Two speeches

In his festive speech last weekend, King Felipe VI revealed himself to be dreaming of a unified Spain

MARK NAYLER

In his festive speech last weekend, King Felipe VI revealed himself to be... (*breaks into song*) dreaming of a unified Spain. When Catalan president Pere Aragonès gave his televised address two days later, though, he expressed a rather different wish for 2023 - a legal referendum on secession, which he hopes would sanction a breakaway from Madrid. Who's more likely to get what they want in the forthcoming year?

Answer: the King. Pedro Sánchez may be light on convictions but one thing he's repeatedly stressed is that there will be no Catalan independence referendum on his watch.

The rest of Felipe's twelve-minute speech consisted of the sort of platitudes and statements of the obvious that usually characterise such addresses - i.e. that the war in Ukraine has caused a lot of devastation and that Spanish households are struggling with higher living costs. In fact, the most interesting thing about this year's speech was that it attracted over a million less viewers than 2021's - perhaps an instance of the "erosion of institutions" (in this case owed to the Juan Carlos scandal) that Felipe also expressed concern about.

In his own end-of-year address last Monday, Aragonès reiterated his most deeply-held article of faith: that collaboration between Barcelona and Madrid - an exercise of the kind of "political will", as he calls it, that generated the Scottish referendum of 2014 - will result in a state-approved vote on Catalan independence. I use the word "faith" deliberately, because continuing to believe that this is possible, at least under the Socialist-led government, requires a leap, a slight departure from reality.

Catalan separatists did win one (largely symbolic) victory this year though: the government's rewording of the crime of sedition to "aggravated public disorder", and the lowering of prison sentences attached to the new offence. But it's hard to see how the newly defined crime would result in any concrete differences, in terms of the state's treatment of separatists, if another illegal referendum were held.

In any case, Sánchez's response to the crusading Catalan premier in his year-end press conference a day later was unambiguous. Because of its unconstitutionality, he said independence "will not happen". Hardly a good omen for the talks between Barcelona and Madrid that are set to continue throughout 2023, the talks in which Aragonès has so much belief.

A general election due at the end of next year will hopefully shake things up. The two most exciting possibilities are that labour minister Yolanda Díaz campaigns on her own platform and/or that gutsy Madrid premier Isabel Ayuso replaces the beige Alberto Feijóo as PP boss. The election of Spain's first female prime minister, from whichever side of the political centre, really would be something to celebrate in twelve months' time.