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How the Catalonia crisis has paralyzed Spanish politics

A man holds a Catalan pro-independence flag while others hold placards reading “Freedom” at a November demo in Barcelona calling for the release of jailed separatist leaders. Photo: AFP

A 2018 budget that has still not been approved, a constitutional reform left hanging in the air… Far from a mere territorial issue, the Catalan crisis has also paralyzed Spanish politics as a whole.

The independence drive, which caused the country's biggest crisis in decades, has only added to the woes of a parliament already deeply fragmented as warring political parties make any agreement difficult.

“This is going to be an exceptionally unproductive legislature,” said Jose Fernandez Albertos, a researcher at the Spanish National Research Council.

First and foremost, Spain's national budget for 2018.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative Popular Party (PP) and his allies — centre-right Ciudadanos and lawmakers from the Canary Islands — need the support of five ..

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A man holds a Catalan pro-independence flag while others hold placards reading "Freedom" at a November demo in Barcelona calling for the release of jailed separatist leaders. Photo: AFP

A 2018 budget that has still not been approved, a constitutional reform left hanging in the air… Far from a mere territorial issue, the Catalan crisis has also paralyzed Spanish politics as a whole.

The independence drive, which caused the country's biggest crisis in decades, has only added to the woes of a parliament already deeply fragmented as warring political parties make any agreement difficult.

"This is going to be an exceptionally unproductive legislature," said Jose Fernandez Albertos, a researcher at the Spanish National Research Council.

First and foremost, Spain's national budget for 2018.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative Popular Party (PP) and his allies — centre-right Ciudadanos and lawmakers from the Canary Islands — need the support of five MPs from the Basque Country's PNV nationalist party to see it through.

But the PNV has baulked at Madrid's imposition of direct rule on Catalonia after its regional parliament declared unilateral independence on October 27th.

So it has so far refused to give its support like it did last year, a position it is likely maintain until a regional election in Catalonia on December 21st.

'Apathy'

Then there is a Spanish territorial reform which is proving difficult to push ahead, even against the background of Catalan leaders wanting to break from the country.

Spain is divided into 17 semi-autonomous regions, but some of them — including Catalonia — have grievances and are asking for financing that would be better suited to their needs.

Any territorial reform would have to involve an improvement in the regional financing system, which varies from one part of Spain to another, or an ambitious overhaul of the 1978 Constitution.

The Socialists got a pledge from Rajoy's PP that it would look into a constitutional reform in exchange for supporting Madrid's imposition of direct rule on Catalonia.

But now, Rajoy is dragging his feet. "We can't talk of reforming the constitution without knowing exactly what reform is needed," he has repeatedly said.

"The problem isn't that there aren't proposals to update our constitution, the problem is we have a government that is devoid of political initiative," said Socialist party leader Pedro Sanchez last month, accusing it of "apathy."

For Fernandez, a constitutional reform will be hard to agree on. He considers it would be more realistic to "invest political capital in other solutions that don't involve a constitutional reform," such as legislating on inequalities or better access to basic rights.

Fragmented parliament

But that's just the problem.

Putting Catalonia aside, Spain's parliament is full of squabbling political parties that don't agree.

In the year since November 2016, when a new legislature began, a mere nine ordinary laws have been approved, compared to 48 in 2015 and 36 the year before that.

Rajoy's minority government, which has promised the EU to reduce Spain's deficit to below 3 percent of GDP in 2018, has vetoed dozens of opposition-led initiatives, arguing they would involve more public spending.

Formed after close to a year of political blockage after two inconclusive elections, Rajoy's PP only has 137 lawmakers out of 350, far from the absolute majority he enjoyed from 2011 to 2015.

The arrival of two relatively new parties on the scene — far-left Podemos and Ciudadanos — has further divided a political scene once dominated by the PP and Socialists.

And that's hurting the work of the parliament as parties disagree on various proposals.

Amplify divisions

The Catalan crisis has only amplified these divisions, with weekly plenary sessions becoming a ping pong match of accusations.

"What Spain needs right now is more social and territorial cohesions," said Socialist lawmaker Meritxell Batet in parliament last week.

"Spain needs a project for the future, and you're not providing it," she told finance minister Cristobal Montoro and Ciudadanos chief Albert Rivera.

Rajoy's personality also explains the legislative paralysis, said Antonio Torres del Moral, a constitutional law professor at Spain's UNED University.

"He is one of those politicians who thinks that time fixes many things, so he prefers not to take risks by launching legislative initiatives," he said.

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Spain

Man jailed for WhatsApp threats to kill Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez

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A man has been sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison for threatening to kill Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.

Manuel Murillo Sanchez was found guilty by Spain’s National Court of preparing to commit assassination and illegal weapons offences.

The 65-year-old former security guard from Tarrasa was arrested in 2018 after making deaths threats in a WhatsApp group.

The court heard how Murillo Sanchez had offered to act as a “sniper” and “hunt down” the Spanish PM “like a deer”.

The suspect’s comments came after the Spanish government had ordered for the remains of former dictator Francisco Franco to be exhumed.

The court rejected his defence that he had been intoxicated when sending the WhatsApp messages and sentenced him to two years and six months in prison for attempted murder.

He was also given a five-year sentence for possessing illegal weapons and banned from owning any firearms for eight years. The verdict is subject to appeal.

The remains of Franco were removed to a cemetery on the outskirts of Madrid in October 2019, prompting anger from far-right groups in Spain.

In a WhatsApp group, Murillo Sanchez had allegedly told fellow users that he was a “sniper with a precise shot” who could target Prime Minister Sanchez.

“We cannot allow them to humiliate Generalissimo Francisco Franco … If necessary, I will go armed and sit on Franco’s tomb, and if they come close, I will shoot”, he reportedly wrote.

The court said the man’s “determination” and the number of weapons seized from him shows “a high level of danger” even if he had not made any specific plans to kill the Spanish PM.

The suspect had repeatedly expressed “his intention to finish off the president of the government” to “bring about a change in the Spanish political situation”, a court statement read.

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Barcelona seeks to ban smoking on all beaches, after positive pilot scheme

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Barcelona City Council is seeking to ban smoking on all of the city’s 10 beaches from this July, following a successful pilot scheme that was carried out on four beaches last summer.

‘The measure aims to facilitate healthier places to live together, with less waste and respect for the environment,’ the council said.

It said that there was a ‘good reception’ to the pilot test of smokeless beaches carried out last year, and which was assessed positively by the public with a score of 8.2 points out of 10. It also resulted in ‘a significant reduction of highly polluting cigarette butts abandoned in the sand’, the council added, resulting in the authorities pushing for an extension of the ban on all 10 beaches of Barcelona’s coastline for this summer.

The council said on Friday that it would be launching a campaign this month to inform residents of the new measure, as well as spreading awareness of its benefits. When the restriction comes into effect in July, it will be monitored by the Barcelona Public Health Agency (ASPB).

Last summer smoking was prohibited on four of the ten beaches in Barcelona (Sant Miquel, Somorrostro, Nova Icària and Nova Mar Bella) from 29 May until 12 September. The regulations last year did not allow Barcelona City Council to actually apply sanctions, but bathers could be told to stop smoking by police officers, and if they then refused to do so, they could have faced fines for disobedience.

According to reports, only 2.6% of beach-goers defied the ban at the four beaches last summer, whilst 19% of those at the city’s other six beaches smoked.

The campaign last year highlighted that 13.8% of deaths annually in Barcelona are attributed to tobacco consumption – some 2,200 people. The campaign also focused on the danger of second-hand smoke, considered particularly harmful for children. A study last year revealed that more than 135,000 cases of respiratory diseases and over 3,000 hospitalisations in children aged under 12 in Spain are attributed to passive smoking.

According to the National Committee for the Prevention of Smoking, approximately five billion cigarette butts end up in the sea each year. Discarded cigarettes contain substances such as cadmium, iron, arsenic, nickel, copper, zinc, or manganese – some of which are toxic to both human and marine life.

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Body of US software mogul John McAfee still in Barcelona morgue, seven months after his death

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The body of American anti-virus developer John McAfee remains in a morgue in the Barcelona City of Justice complex, in the northeastern Spanish region of Catalonia, seven months after his death. It is currently located in the Legal Medicine Institute (Imelec), a grey building with honeycomb windows, while a judge has been preparing a report on his death.

That report, released this week, has determined that the software mogul died by suicide in his prison cell in Barcelona province on June 23, 2021 as he awaited extradition to the United States on charges of failing to file US tax returns from 2014 to 2018.

The 75-year-old’s family had raised questions about the circumstances of his death, even though an autopsy concluded that McAfee hung himself inside his cell at Brians 2 penitentiary in Sant Esteve Sesrovires. Prison workers found a suicide note in the pocket of his pants.

The months-long investigation is not quite over yet, as lawyers for McAfee’s family have appealed the Spanish judge’s decision to provisionally close the case. The provincial court of Barcelona must now decide whether to confirm the judge’s decision or order him to keep the investigation open. The family has argued that the autopsy was incomplete and lacked the “basic elements” to draw definitive conclusions about the cause of death, according to defense sources.

The building in Martorell (Barcelona) that houses the court that’s been investigating the case has so many structural deficiencies that in 2019, Spain’s legal watchdog, the General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ), ordered two courtrooms closed because of safety hazards. The legal staff in this building is also dealing with a severe backlog of work, which partially explains the delay in concluding the McAfee investigation.

The cybersecurity entrepreneur’s family was very critical of the process from the beginning. His ex-wife, Janice McAfee, traveled to Barcelona and met with three prison officials at Brians 2, but she remained unconvinced by their explanations and questioned the suicide hypothesis. “The last thing he told me was ‘I love you and I’ll call you this evening. Those are not the words of someone who is suicidal’,” she said at the time.

Clear case

But medical experts who examined the body always believed it was a clear case of suicide. McAfee was found hanging from his cell, where he had asked to spend time. He was in pre-trial detention after being charged with tax evasion by the United States. He had been in prison for more than eight months while Spain’s High Court, the Audiencia Nacional, considered the extradition request for failing to file tax returns between 2014 and 2018. On Wednesday morning, McAfee’s lawyers told him that the court had decided to approve his extradition to the US and in the afternoon he killed himself, according to the investigation.

McAfee was the creator of one of the most popular antivirus software programs on the market and was considered a genius in the tech world. His life, however, was plagued by controversy. In 2012, McAfee was named a person of interest by authorities in Belize investigating the murder of his neighbor, but he never faced trial because he fled before he could be questioned. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, McAfee was in Spain’s Catalonia region, where he spent most of the lockdown. Authorities believe he lived in a semi-abandoned hotel in Cambrils called Daurada Park Hotel. Two years earlier, during an administrative inspection, the Catalan police had discovered a cryptocurrency operation in the basement of the hotel.

In July 2021 Spain’s National Police were notified by Interpol about the charges for tax evasion and arrested him on October 3 at Barcelona’s El Prat airport as he was about to fly to Istanbul. The court’s extradition decision, however, could have been appealed, and McAfee’s defense was already working on this process.

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