Barcelona (ACN).- The President of the Catalan Government, Artur Mas, assessed on Tuesday the Executive’s work during 2014, which he found to be “positive” overall, although he admitted there are still many people in great need and many social and economic challenges ahead. Referring to the current debate on whether to call early elections transformed into a ‘de facto’ referendum on independence from Spain, Mas promised immediate decisions to be announced on Thursday. Before taking the definitive decision and after weeks of admitted “confusion”, the Catalan President wants to hold a last round of talks with the main civil society organisations supporting independence and the left-wing pro-independence party ERC – with whom the governing centre-right pro-Catalan State coalition CiU has shared a parliamentary stability agreement for the last 2 years. “I will not slack” in the self-determination process, Mas stated. Furthermore, he highlighted that he wants to take “a serene decision” in order for this process “to continue and end well”.
On Tuesday early afternoon, the Catalan President gave a press conference in which he assessed the Government’s action during 2014. He divided his assessment into 8 main parts. Firstly, he started with a sort of disclaimer regarding the next steps of the self-determination process, which will be disclosed on Thursday, he announced. Mas insisted that he would not disclose further details about it during this press conference, although most of the journalists’ questions addressed this issue. Secondly, the Catalan President made a broad overview of the current economic and social situation, emphasising aspects that have improved but recognising that there are still many areas for improvement and that many citizens are still suffering the harsh effects of the economic crisis.
The next four areas were devoted to an explicit review of the governmental actions in fostering the economic recovery and fighting unemployment; in managing social services; in improving transparency; and, in carrying out Catalonia’s “national transition”. Finally, the last two parts were dedicated to making a specific assessment of the parliamentary stability agreement signed with the ERC and giving examples of other agreements reached with a wide variety of sectors of Catalan society, such as in the fields of business, agriculture, child protection and justice. In fact, Mas ended his speech by insisting on the need to foster “a culture of reaching agreements” and working together with wide sectors of the civil society on common objectives.
Mas makes a “positive assessment” of 2014
The Catalan President highlighted that “many issues are being dealt with besides Catalonia’s political process”. “Many things are being done”, he insisted, answering those who say that the Catalan Government is only focused on the self-determination debate. This Tuesday’s conference aimed to show what the Executive has achieved during the last year.
The Catalan President stated that 2014 had been “positive”, although he immediately acknowledged that there are still many people “who still do not witness and feel” the effects of the economic recovery. Hence, the Catalan Government has strengthened its budget share allocated to social issues, reaching a historical maximum of 71.2% in 2015. Mas highlighted that “we are starting to achieve” creation of wealth and jobs, accumulating 18 consecutive months of decreased annual unemployment. Registered unemployment dropped in Catalonia by 7.8% during 2014, while it decreased by 5.4% in the whole of Spain (or by 5% if Catalan results are not included in the Spanish average). The number of people registered in the Social Security system has also increased, by 2.9%, and 1 out of 5 new registrations in Spain overall come from Catalonia (which accounts for less than 16% of the Spanish population).
Some economic indicators reached historic positive records
Furthermore, Catalonia registered economic growth in all 4 quarters of 2014, which is the first time since 2007 that this has happened. Catalan exports accumulated more than €50.3 billion between January and October (the latest figures available), setting a new historical record and growing by 2.2%, which is more than the EU average. In addition, the number of foreign tourists also reached a historic high and their spending grew by 6.4%. On top of this, Catalonia would be the second country receiving the highest number of grants from the European Research Council after the Netherlands, with 19.6 grants per million inhabitants. Mas also highlighted that 4 Catalan universities are among the world’s 100 best universities created in the last 50 years.
“There is a new landscape” and “we are overturning one of the hardest periods” for the economy and society in the last decades, he said. However, there are still many people in need, he insisted. Despite this fact, some social indicators have also improved. For instance, the rate of school dropout rate has dropped from 28.9% to 24.7% over the last 3 years, and needs to be further reduced, said Mas. Furthermore, the rate of school success has gone from 81% to 86%. In addition, the number of youngsters registered in the vocational training system has increased by 78% in the last 7 years and now 40% of teenagers take the vocational training track and 60% the pre-university courses, reaching the European average.
The Catalan President also mentioned important bills about to be approved, such as a law reforming the Catalan Public Employment Service (SOC) – aiming to make it more efficient and to increase its collaboration with the private sector – and a law strengthening vocational training. Furthermore, the Catalan Finance Institute (ICF) – Catalonia’s public bank – has issued €640 million for corporate loans (a 9% increase on 2013 figures), assisting 1,497 companies.
With 20% less budget, social spending reaches a 71% share
Mas highlighted the fact that due to the economic crisis and the need to meet the strict deficit targets, the Catalan Government’s budget has been reduced by 20% when compared to what it was in 2010. However, despite this reduction in revenue, the Executive has prioritised social spending, since the Catalan Government exclusively manages public healthcare and education networks (including universities), as well as social care policies. The budget share allocated to the basic Welfare State functions will reach a historical high of 71.2% in 2015, despite the total allocated amount being reduced in line with the rest of the budget. In 2010, it represented 67.8% of spending.
Furthermore, the Catalan Government allocated €981 million to 172 actions and programmes fighting poverty, with a special emphasis on combating child poverty. In addition, a fund to help families that cannot pay their energy bills during the winter months will be created, despite outright opposition from the Spanish Government. On top of this, 66,000 children receive a school meal grant and, for the first time, the families most in need will get 100% of the meal’s cost paid for. Mas also said that for the first time in the last 4 years, the number of teachers has increased and that in 2014 the Catalan public education system had the highest number of pupils ever.
The Catalan President also highlighted that the waiting lists in public hospitals have been reduced by 33.5% for 14 groups of common illnesses. In addition, social housing programmes have increased by 25% compared to 2013 in terms of the number of beneficiaries, reaching 32,000 families. Furthermore, the Catalan Government has paid for free legal counsel for 120,000 people involved in judicial processes who could not afford a lawyer.
Mas also accused the Spanish Government of neglecting its obligations regarding the Dependency Law, which runs programmes that assist financially people who have a certain degree of disability and whom are dependent on somebody else’s care. This Law was approved by Zapatero’s Government before the economic crisis but it has always been lacking associated funds. It was foreseen that the Autonomous Communities governments would pay half of the costs, despite the fact that they did not approve the law and no further funds were allocated. However, in 2014, the Catalan Executive had to increase its funds to €955 million because the Spanish Government only contributed €164 million, a great “extra effort” in order to continue helping the people in need, highlighted Mas.
The Catalan Government topped Spain’s transparency ranking in 2014
The Catalan President also highlighted the measures implemented to improve transparency and reform the public sector. In 2014, the Catalan Government topped the transparency ranking among the Spanish institutions for the first time, according to international organisations. Two years ago the Catalan Government launched 51 measures to improve transparency, the implementation of which is being continued and have “started to produce results”, Mas said. In addition to this, the Catalan Parliament also approved a Transparency Law a few weeks ago.
On top of these achievements, the number of public bodies in which the Catalan Government had a main presence has been reduced by 29% since 2011 (the initial objective was set at 25%, underlined Mas). Furthermore, the number of red tape processes that companies may have to follow has been reduced and simplified since 2011. Some 396 processes have been simplified, 78 have been eliminated and a single access point has been set up grouping together the entire public sector, so companies do not have to file documents in different locations and for different public bodies.
In 2014, Catalans voted for the first time on independence from Spain
Finally, the Catalan President also wanted to talk for a few minutes about what happened in 2014 regarding the self-determination process, although he insisted that the main conference on this issue will be on Thursday. Mas highlighted that for the first time ever, which means for the first time in democracy and “in the last 300 years”, he stressed, Catalans got the opportunity to give their opinion on independence from Spain. Mas admitted that it was a symbolic vote and that the definitive referendum still has to take place, but he insisted it had been a great success despite the numerous obstacles in the way. 2.35 million people participated; 9 out of 10 voted for a Catalan State and 8 out of 10 voted for full independence.
This was possible because there was “a strategic alliance between the Government and the people”, putting the “partisan fights” aside. In addition, the Catalan Government is working on developing state structures, such as Catalonia’s own tax administration system. Mas also mentioned that an External Action Law has been approved for the first time since 1980, better defining and expanding Catalonia’s own powers in this area. Therefore, for all this reasons, regarding the self-determination process, “2014 has been the best year yet” and now “we cannot slack”, “we have to carry on” and “make sure it ends well”.
The agreement with the ERC has worked “positively” up until October
In this vein, Mas also stated that the parliamentary stability agreement with the ERC had been “positive” up until October. From that point on, he preferred not to assess the agreement, recognising that there has been quite some “confusion” over the last few weeks regarding the next steps to be taken in the self-determination process. However, he wished to emphasise that 67% of the measures included in the agreement with the ERC have already been implemented – the 6 measures regarding the citizen vote on independence, for instance – and 22% are in the course of being implemented (an additional 11% are yet to be dealt with). However, this agreement was for 4 years and only 2 have passed, said Mas. “The Government has met its obligations”, he concluded.