Just hours after Pedro Sánchez was sworn in as the new prime minister of Spain, he was confronted with the biggest issue facing his fragile minority government: the crisis in Catalonia.
The pro-independence government of the restive north-eastern region was, by coincidence, also appointed on Saturday. The new Catalan leader Quim Torra, immediately said the government would press for independence from Spain.
“This government is committed to moving towards an independent state in the form of a republic,” said the former grassroots activists after the cabinet’s swearing in ceremony as a crowd of separatists outside shouted “Llibertat! Llibertat!” (Freedom!).
Last year’s push by the Catalan government for independence was the biggest constitutional crisis to have hit Spain since its return to democracy in 1978. The Spanish government used emergency measures to take direct control of Catalonia after it declared itself an independent republic.
With another new fiercely separatist Catalan government in power, the situation remains volatile, analysts said. Last year’s conflict cost former prime minister Mariano Rajoy, time, energy and political capital, sapping support nationwide and hastening his downfall last week. With just 84 seats in a 350 seat parliament, Mr Sánchez is reliant on the support of disparate regional parties, including the Catalans, so his minority government is potentially even more vulnerable to a flare up in tensions.
“Catalonia has the potential to create very serious problems for the Sánchez government,” says Oriol Bartomeus, political scientist at Autonomous University Barcelona. “It is his weakest spot.”
Relations between Mr Sánchez and the Catalans, however, are starting on a positive note. Mr Sánchez has called for fresh dialogue and for Madrid to listen to the Catalans. Mr Torra on Saturday said; “Pedro Sánchez, let’s talk, let’s address this issue, let’s take risks, you and us.”
There is a sense of cautious optimism in Spain. “There is a chance for progress to be made here on the Catalan question, for something to really happen,” says Jordi Alberich, the director of the Barcelona think-tank Círculo de Economía.
But analysts say talks will not be easy. For a start, there is little love lost between the two sides. Mr Sánchez supported measures to take control of the regional administration last year and sack the last government. Only a few weeks ago Mr Sánchez called Mr Torra a “racist” for writing an article in which he said Spaniards were “carrion-feeders, vipers and hyenas”.
Secondly, while Mr Sánchez has an incentive to try and keep the Catalans happy, avoiding another open confrontation and winning their political support in parliament if possible, he also cannot be seen to be too soft on the issue either.
Sánchez . . . needs to keep the Catalans happy in the negotiations, but if he is seen to give too much, it will hurt him badly in the next elections
If he is too accommodating, he risks getting punished in the next elections — which could come in later in the year or next year — by Spanish voters who are broadly antagonistic to the pro-independence Catalans and their demands.
“Sánchez has to strike a delicate balance,” says Narciso Michavila, the head of GAD3, the Spanish polling agency. “He needs to keep the Catalans happy in the negotiations, but if he is seen to give too much, it will hurt him badly in the next elections.”
One of his chief rivals in parliament, Albert Rivera, the leader of the liberal and anti Catalan independence Ciudadanos party, said last week he will be “very attentive to the concessions” that are made by the Sánchez government.
There is also a chance that the Catalan government will pick a negotiating position that will be impossible for Mr Sánchez to accept. Hardliners on the Catalan side want to talk only about independence and will, for example, want dates for a binding referendum on the issue.
Mr Sánchez has already said that any talks needed to be within a “constitutional framework”, meaning there can be no negotiation on Catalonia gaining independence. Spain’s Constitution says that the country is “indivisible”.
If the moderates in the Catalan separatist camp — who see independence as a more long-term goal, and might be happy with other concessions — take the lead, constructive talks might be possible. Talks could then ensue about issues such as money, the recognition of the region as a “nation” and senate reform.
Even if progress is made in talks, the Sánchez government is so weak it is unlikely the new government will be able to get any concessions from Madrid passed through a parliament largely hostile to the Catalan separatists.
“The best people can really hope for is little steps to be made,” says Mr Bartomeus. “Something that could be built on after the next elections if Sánchez could win a majority in parliament.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited . All rights reserved. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.