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In English, it's known as a snap election - and with the Spanish government's sudden calling of the country to the polls on July 23rd, it is as if a magician has snapped his fingers: thus, on the one hand, some sleepers awaken with a start, like the Podemos and Sumar organizations which are now frantically attempting to weave an electoral alliance in time; but on the other, there are the many things that stop: Las Cortes Generales, the Spanish houses of parliament, have been immediately dissolved and most parliamentary activity ceases. Single-issue committees that were running, die; and the Spanish cabinet becomes, in theory, a mere administrator. In particular, the early calling of the Spanish general election that had been expected in December has caused, among other issues, a number of key activities related to the Catalan agenda to either die - or be placed in hibernation for an indefinite period.

The clearest example is Operation Catalonia. The pro-independence groups had finally managed to set up a committee of inquiry in the Congress of Deputies on the use of illicit powers, the so-called state sewers, against the pro-independence movement. It had just begun its activity: the appearance of former police commissioner José Manuel Villarejo, who had signaled the former Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy as the mastermind of the plot, had already taken place. With the dissolution of Las Cortes, however, this inquiry process has been, at least for now, buried.

The committee, moreover, had only just been set up and its first appearances had begun. The local and autonomous electoral campaign of 28th May had left it on stand-by, but the intention of the parliamentary groups was to resume it from the second half of June. The congressional parties had agreed to call former Interior minister Jorge Fernández Díaz, his number two, Francisco Martínez, and the former general secretary of the People's Party (PP), María Dolores de Cospedal to appear, among many other names. The PSOE had imposed partisan limits - restricting the investigation to the period in which the PP was in power - while also putting the sacred unity of Spain above everything by refusing to have Mariano Rajoy appear. And yet, even if the configuration of this inquiry had its limitations, it promised to shine at least some light on the nefarious activities carried out by the Spanish state to undermine the Catalan independence movement.  

The transfer of the 'Rodalies' rail services: still a mirage

It is also clear that, with the "acting" status that the Spanish government has now assumed, the possibility of transferring the Rodalies rail services - most of Catalonia's suburban and regional trains - to the control of the Generalitat is slipping further and further away. In March, the Catalan presidency minister, Laura Vilagrà, sent a letter to the Spanish transport portfolio holder, Raquel Sánchez, demanding a summit be called to reactivate the negotiations to transfer the rail services fully to Catalan government hands.

But that's as far as it went. The Spanish government made no response and the two parties have not met since to address this jurisdictional conflict. Now, despite the heavy criticisms and shaking of heads over the last month after a major service malfunction in Gavà led to yet another chaotic Rodalies episode, the Spanish government has done no more than reiterate its will to address the "comprehensive" transfer of the train service to the Catalan authorities. 

However, the two governments do not use the same dictionary: "comprehensive" has one meaning in Barcelona, where it is interpreted as implying a total and absolute transfer of Rodalies and the entire service to Catalan hands, while in Madrid the infrastructure is not included in the equation. A few weeks ago, for example, minister Raquel Sánchez assured that it was unfeasible to include the transfer of the rail tracks.

Recurs Renfe Rodalies tren passatger Plaça Catalunya anden / Foto: Carlos Baglietto
Plaça Catalunya railway station, in Barcelona / Photo: Carlos Baglietto

The reform of Spanish intelligence 

Also in this legislature, convulsed by the Pegasus spyware scandals, measures were meant to be approved to make Spain's National Intelligence Centre (CNI) more transparent. Pedro Sánchez had made the commitment in the Congress of Deputies to reform the law on judicial control of the CNI along the same lines as the recommendations made by the Spanish Ombudsman. In the midst of the massive  Catalangate espionage against the Catalan independence movement, and after having used the excuse that Sánchez himself and two ministers, Margarita Robles and Fernando Grande-Marlaska, had also been victims of the spyware, the head of the Spanish executive had expressed a defence of respect for political and individual rights.

But, rather than being a process cut short by the election, the Spanish government had already buried the possibility of democratizing the institution that is allegedly behind the Pegasus espionage against pro-independence leaders. In the 2023 legislative plan, presented in January, the Sánchez executive softened its commitment to reform the CNI. Sources consulted by in the presidency ministry of Félix Bolaños - the department in charge of presenting the new regulatory plan - avoided giving explanations on this matter and passed the buck to the defence ministry, on which the intelligence service depends.

Dialogue table

Another specific Catalan issue that has also been deeply buried for the last few months - snap election or no snap election - is the dialogue table to "resolve the political conflict between Catalonia and Spain", set up as part of the the Catalan Republican Left's deal with Pedro Sánchez in 2020 in return for supporting his investiture. If it ever came to life at all - only three meetings were held in more than three years - the Spanish government's cynical attitude was summed up by its total rejection of the proposal for a Clarity Agreement on Catalonia's future promoted by president Pere Aragonès. In February, without looking any further, the Spanish government spokesperson, Isabel Rodríguez, stated during a visit to Catalonia that the dialogue mechanism is no longer "necessary".

Europa Press ministra politica territorial isabel rodriguez
The Spanish government spokesperson, in the media theatre at the Moncloa palace / Photo: Europa Press

Even PM Pedro Sánchez's entourage had already warned the media in December 2022 that the possibility of calling the dialogue table to meet again was remote because "dialogue has already been consummated". In any case, the deals he entered into with the pro-independence parties have taken their toll on Pedro Sánchez in the elections of 28th May. It remain to be seen how the next Spanish government - whether Socialist or PP - will approach its relationship with Catalonia.

The Catalan agenda, in the hands of the new majority

Thus, the votes cast on 23rd July will decide if all the issues related to both the Catalan and progressive agendas in Madrid will still be up for negotiation, if only parts of them will remain or if they will end up as completely buried. If a parliament with a left-wing majority is elected in Spain, and an executive along these lines is put into power, the first two scenarios are feasible. A government headed by the PP, with the support of Vox, would completely remove the possibility of a Rodalies transfer, or more transparency in critical state institutions. And as for the possibility of reviving a commission of inquiry into how the state sewers were used to pursue the independence movement? Impossible, now matter how many times the magician snapped his fingers.