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The Spanish king, Felipe de Borbón, has come back to Catalonia this Sunday, having not been this way since 28th August, when he headed the demonstration called to show rejection for the jihadist attacks on Barcelona and Cambrils. As is now a tradition, the king is here to open a new edition of the Mobile World Congress, the most important global event held annually in the Catalan capital. But in an situation that is without precedents over the last four decades, the king of Spain is not being received by any top-level Catalan authorities.

The two leading authorities in Catalonia at present, the speaker of Parliament, Roger Torrent, and the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, are leading an unheard-of institutional boycott of the head of state. Neither of these two figures, nor any other representative of the Catalan government (whose control has been taken over by Madrid) will take part in the official reception organized by the monarchy, but they will attend the dinner afterwards, at Barcelona's Palau de la Música, which will allow them to maintain their political and institutional commitment with the MWC.

The reason for the protest is none other than to make it clear, before the head of state, that the political, institutional and social situation of Catalonia, with political leaders imprisoned and in exile, is very far from “normal”. An institutional denunciation which will also be reflected in protests in the street, and a plan for the “biggest-ever” cassolada  - that is, pot-banging protest - which the leading pro-independence civil groups Òmnium and ANC have called the public to take part in.

The climate is one of high tension. As already seen on Friday at the Barcelona Legal Association, when senior members of the judiciary present walked out on Roger Torrent after the parliamentary speaker referred to "political prisoners" in his speech before Spanish justice minister Rafael Catalá. But how has the situation got to this point - first, distancing, and afterwards, a complete rupture between the Catalan institutions and the Spanish monarchy?

The MWC of Puigdemont and Junqueras

A year ago, Felipe VI was received by all of the major Catalan authorities at the opening of the Mobile World Congress. Present at the different receptions - the gala dinner and the official inauguration - of the massive technological fair were Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, the vice president, Oriol Junqueras, the speaker of Parliament, Carme Forcadell, and, naturally, the MWC host, mayor Colau. A tense calm reigned: the independence process was starting to accelerate, but the key decisions had not yet been taken. There was still margin to explore some kind of understanding.

In 2017, despite the coolness between Barcelona and Madrid, there were even moments of empathy: an image of Junqueras making room for Spanish vice president Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría in the official group photo with the monarch. A year later, the landscape has been transformed: Puigdemont's government was sacked through the application of article 155 of the constitution, as a result of the independence referendum on 1st October and the proclamation of the Catalan Republic on 27th October.  The Catalan president is now in exile in Belgium, with four of his ministers, while Junqueras is in prison, along with minister Quim Forn - responsible, together with the chief of Catalonia's Mossos d'Esquadra police, Josep-Lluís Trapero, for dismantling the terrorist commando that struck Catalonia last August - and also jailed are the leaders of Omnium and the ANC, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez.

Puigdemont Rei Junqueras Soraya Mobile 2017 EFE

Forcadell, Collboni, Puigdemont, Felipe de Borbón, Santamaría and Junqueras at the MWC 2017 / EFE

Catalonia has not been successful in becoming recognized as an independent state, but now in the Spain of Felipe VI, there are political prisoners, and the monarch has had a key role in the approach that has brought us to where we are. At least, half of the Catalan population would go along with this, those who at the Catalan election of 21st December once again gave their support to the pro-independence parties, which thus repeated their absolute majority in parliament. A majority that, however, is unable to (re)invest the legitimate president: Puigdemont. Legitimate not in terms of legalistic arguments but because it is he who has the most parliamentary support to preside over the Catalan government again.

The king's three messages on Catalonia

There are three royal messages which explain the reasons for the rupture. Half of Barcelona and half of Catalonia can't forgive Felipe VI for the speech he gave on 3rd October 2017, in which, two days after the brutal police repression of the referendum, he not only ignored any reference to those injured - more than 1,000, according to the Catalan health service - but also because his discourse placed the Catalan government, half of Barcelona and half of Catalonia outside the law. Far from exercising the role of arbitrator and moderator accorded to him by Spain's constitution, the head of state maintained a silence that effectively validated the indiscriminate police violence, visible in images which were seen around the world. And he gave his blessing to the subsequent intervention in Catalan self-rule carried out by Mariano Rajoy's government, supported by its political allies the Spanish socialists (PSOE) and Citizens (Cs) party, invoking “the responsibility of the legitimate powers of the State to ensuring the constitutional order”.

In the king's traditional Christmas message (link in Catalan), once the Catalan elections called by Rajoy had concluded with a huge knock-back for the parties supporting the article 155 intervention, even though Cs was the largest force, the king did not hesitate to advise the future Catalan government on the consequences of continuing on the path it had undertaken, even though the trajectory had been interrupted.

Not a single gesture. And there was still more, when Felipe spoke to the economic forum of Davos (Switzerland), and before the global elite and speaking as if he were a regular Spanish politician addressing a party convention, he justified the application of article 155 and the policies applied to Catalonia to guarantee “the empire of the law”.

The result of all this, which today has its expression in the institutional tension at the opening of the Mobile World Congress, is that the Spanish monarchy is suffering the worst crisis in its relationship with Catalonia in the last 40 years. The figure of the king of Spain had never been so openly questioned in Catalonia. More than a few people observe that, while his father, king Juan Carles I, went down in history for having stopped a pro-Franco coup attempt on 23rd February 1981, after negotiating with the heads of the army, Felipe VI has not even provided mediation in the Catalan crisis. The king has dedicated himself to reading predictable speeches, or, as has been revealed after complaints, to pressuring companies like car producer Seat to leave Catalonia.

There is no record of any other action in the crisis being taken by the head of state, not even in the crucial moment that preceded the decision by Puigdemont not to call new elections and to activate the Declaration of Independence on 27th October. And because of that it is no surprise that the independence movement, and president Puigdemont himself - who has known Felipe and the queen Letizia since his time as mayor of Girona, city which hosts the royally-sponsored Princess of Girona Foundation - has even accused Felipe of putting himself at the head of the chants to “Go get 'em!". This was the infamous popular chant which many Spanish citizens shouted to cheer the departure of their locally-based police and Civil Guard forces that travelled to Catalonia to clamp down on the referendum of 1st October.

How to maintain a balance

However, a key question to be considered is that of the balance between, on the one hand, the institutional protest which has emerged legitimately from the independence movement and the mayoralty of Barcelona and, on the other hand, the need to preserve a climate favourable to the always-delicate continuity of the Mobile World Congress in the Catalan capital. The debate burst forth this week with the decision by senior Catalan civil servant, Jordi Puigneró, secretary of Information Technologies in the Catalan administration, to turn down his invitation to the inaugural events of the MWC, due to the presence of the monarch.

Puigneró pointed to an option - a total boycott of the king's presence - which, unsurprisingly, coincided with that of the members of the far-left CUP party in the Barcelona city council, but also was in line with the stance announced by the leader of the ERC group in city hall, Alfred Bosch. However, ex-mayor and head of the PDeCAT party, Xavier Trias, then stated that he would attend the gala dinner with the monarch at the Palau de la Música but would wear a yellow bow as a sign of protest about the political prisoners. In relation to this stand it is probably sufficient to recall that, apart from Junqueras, the other member of the Catalan Government dismissed by Rajoy who is still imprisoned is the already mentioned Joaquim Forn, interior minister and formerly right- hand man for Trias in the Barcelona city council.

Translation: Coherent and committed Jordi Puignero (Catalan secretary for telecommunications) will not attend the opening of the MWC where the king of Spain will be present. "The MWC is much more than an act of inauguration and a gala dinner" - it is progress, everything that is not represented by Article 155. — Míriam Nogueras 

The position of Trias, avoiding a direct boycott of the monarch, was not well received in some sectors of his party. His fellow party member Míriam Nogueras praised Puigneró, saying that the MWC is much more than just an act of inauguration. "It represents progress, everything that that article 155 is not,” she said. But views were not unanimous even among the ERC group, as indicated by the fact that the mayor and the speaker of the Catalan parliament did not clarify their positions until Saturday, just 24 hours before the arrival of the head of state in Barcelona.

Albano Dante-Fachin, former secretary general of the left-wing Podem party, who on Saturday visited Junqueras in Estremera prison, addressed Colau and Torrent very directly on Thursday via a tweet:

Look, maybe I'm feeling weak, and what I said about controlling the territory and declaring the Republic on Sunday morning I don't see very feasible. There are different proposals: boo the king, bang pots. People are creative and I'm sure it will be noticed. But there is one question which worries me:

Will the two most important authorities in Catalonia go and eat with him, have a photo taken with him, and follow protocol? Will Ada Colau and Roger Torrent take part in this "visit" in which Felipe wants to show the world that we live in "conquered territory"?  — Albano-Dante Fachin 

Thus, on Saturday, the position to be taken by those proposing an institutional boycott of the king began to solidify. As well as Puigneró, two further senior civil servants in the (intervened) Catalan administration said they will not attend the MWC events when the king was present: Pau Villòria, secretary general of Commerce and Joan Aregio, secretary of Competitiveness. Meanwhile, Colau and Torrent found a compromise position between Puigneró-Bosch idea (total boycott) and a critical presence (the Trias plan). The mayor and parliamentary speaker decided to take part in the dinner at the Palau de la Música and in the inauguration of the MWC, but will snub the monarch by not attending the organized receptions in accordance with the royal protocol.

The intermediate way, agreed on by Torrent and Colau, allows them to represent institutionally at least those 54.96% of the Catalan population who reject the violations of basic rights occurring as a result of the independence process, and, at the same time, the rest, since they will coincide with Felipe VI at the gala dinner. And, naturally, it will allow them to express their total support for the Mobile World Congress and the thousands of companies and entrepreneurs - Catalan, Spanish and from all over the world that make the event possible.

Coincidence or not, the city councillors from the three political parties supporting Spain's article 155 intervention in Catalonia - the PP, the PSC and Cs - will be taking part in the MWC events where the head of state is present, without any reservations.


Main image: The king Felipe VI and president Puigdemont at the demonstration on 26th August 2017 against the terrorist attacks of Barcelona and Cambrils.