April 29, 2020 / 4:00 PM / a month ago

Catalan separatists use coronavirus crisis to argue for independence

BARCELONA (Reuters) - Catalan separatists have used the coronavirus crisis as a fresh motive to argue for independence from Spain, some bluntly saying the pandemic would have caused fewer deaths had the wealthy northeastern region been on its own.

But with mistakes by both national and regional authorities, the separatists’ strategy to harshly criticise Madrid and suggest they would have done better could also backfire.

In a region that has the most deaths after Madrid, the separatists say central government should have imposed a tougher and earlier lockdown, and also complain that centralizing purchases of masks and other equipment tangled the response.

“Spain is unemployment and death, Catalonia life and future,” tweeted Barcelona’s chamber of commerce chairman Joan Canadell in one of the strongest rebukes.

Meritxell Budo, a spokeswoman for the regional government, also outraged many Spaniards, at a time of national sensitivity over the world’s third worst death toll, by saying there would not have been “so many deaths” in an independent Catalonia.

Spain has suffered 24,275 deaths, according to Wednesday’s data, including 4,905 dead in Catalonia.

The health crisis has upended Spanish politics, displacing Catalan separatism as the dominant theme it had been in recent years.

But the 2017 short-lived independence declaration, which triggered a major crisis, remains very much in everyone’s mind - and regional leaders still eye a standalone country.

The pandemic “has once more showed the need to have a (Catalan) state,” Marta Vilalta, deputy secretary general of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya party (ERC), told Reuters.

Had it been able to act alone, Catalonia would have been much better placed to act swiftly, Vilalta argued, criticising Madrid’s takeover of health services from the regions.

Catalonia has a 7.5 million population, out of Spain’s 47 million, its own language - Catalan - and its own police, and is second only to Madrid in GDP contribution.

The Catalan government sought a full lockdown of the region on March 13 and two days later said only essential workers should be allowed to leave homes.

Spain’s Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez issued a nationwide lockdown on March 14 but did not ban non-essential work until March 30.

“Spain has constantly been making mistakes,” Catalan regional interior secretary Miquel Buch told Reuters.

“SYSTEMATIC CONFRONTATION”

Authorities in Madrid dispute that, saying they acted when required, and have asked their many critics, including Catalan separatists, to show a sense of national unity.

Miquel Iceta, leader of Catalan Socialists, said it was inaccurate and offensive to say an independent region would have had fewer coronavirus deaths, accusing the Catalan government of seeking “excuses” to minimize its own mistakes.

Iceta, who opposes independence, said it was necessary for the Spanish and Catalan governments to resume bilateral talks interrupted by the pandemic, but warned that promoting “systematic confrontation” with Madrid does not help.

Joan Esculies, history professor at Catalonia’s Open University, said the separatists’ criticism was predictable but risky because the Catalan government had also struggled in some aspects, such as deadly outbreaks in nursing homes.

He expected the number of people in favour or against independence to not change much after the pandemic.

A total of 47.1% of Catalans were against independence with 44.9% in favour, according to a poll conducted between February 10 and March 9 by a Catalan government agency.

Throughout the crisis, separatist grassroots organization CDR has urged balcony protests to demand a stricter lockdown and reject the military’s presence in Catalonia to help combat the coronavirus.

The pandemic has heaped more uncertainty on local politics.

For one, the regional head of government Quim Torra, from the separatist centre-right Junts per Catalunya party, has put on hold his plan for a snap election, which was prompted by tensions with ERC, its coalition partner.

Then, leftist ERC, both a partner and a rival of Junts, could also potentially see its role as a kingmaker on the national scene dwindle.

The two main separatist parties are deeply divided on their strategy to achieve secession after the 2017 failed unilateral independence bid. ERC favours dialogue with Madrid, while Junts has adopted a more confrontational stance.

ERC was instrumental in January in handing Sanchez the votes needed in parliament to form a leftist coalition government - in exchange for political talks between the Spanish and Catalan authorities - after an inconclusive election.

But now Sanchez could seek new parliamentary allies with his call for a national recovery pact, making him potentially less dependent on ERC to get laws, including Spain’s budget, adopted by parliament.

Reporting by Joan Faus; Editing by Ingrid Melander and Andrew Cawthorne

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