30th Nov 2023


Weaponising transport in the Spain vs Catalonia saga

  • Barcelona, whose airport expansion project has been cancelled, and port still lacking a specialised freight trail connection (Photo: Mike McBey/Flickr)
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The politicisation of transport in Spain is an accurate reflection of how nationalistic pride and a fear of a decentralisation of power overrules logic in the country's policymaking.

The transport sector and infrastructure is and has been governed in a centralised military-style fashion - despite the implications of such on the environment and economy.

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  • Madrid's Puerta de Atocha train station (Photo: Cocoabiscuit)

The most recent example, in September, was a three-way row between the Catalan government (the Generalitat), Aena, and the central government. Aena, the Spanish government's airports authority, and the Generalitat butted heads over the details of a deal to expand Barcelona's El Prat Airport.

The deal, which was to consist of a €1.7bn investment into Catalonia, received a nationwide backlash as a concession towards the 'Independentistas'. After subsequent political disagreements between the leader of the Generalitat, Pere Aragones, and the centralised Spanish transport body - including appeals by Aragones for a reform of the expansion to account for environmental implications - Aena cancelled the project.

Whilst a canned €1.7bn transport project would appear to most as a significant failure worth scrutinising, it has not come as a surprise to many Spaniards and most Catalans.

Transport infrastructure in Spain is governed with an underlying mandate of protecting Madrid as the central node of political power. Unlike some other social disputes in Spain which differentiate on a partisan basis, both the ruling socialists (PSOE) and the opposition conservatives (PP) are guilty of prioritising Madrid as the country's communications centre over underlying economic and environmental ramifications.

As outlined in Catalan economist Germà Bel's Espana, Capital Paris, Spain has consistently pushed for Madrid to be the centre for communications and transport, like Paris, even though it does not logically make sense.

Bel explains how not only does Madrid lack a strategic river like La Seine, but the capital's connection to Europe and other trade markets is completely inconvenient, especially compared to other parts of Spain, such as Catalonia.

There is no better example of this 'Madrid-First' mandate than the 20-plus year resistance against properly developing Barcelona's port.

In the late 1990s, Spain announced plans to develop the Catalan port. They wanted to make it relevant again. The port was enlarged with the idea of building a major railway connection into Europe - such as the Port of Rotterdam railway connection to Milan.

In 2005, ADIF, the Spanish state-owned railway manager, announced plans to build the freight connection in 2008. But due to the global financial crisis - which hit Spain hard - the project was halted as "non-essential works."

This was at the same time where Catalonia's request to reform their autonomy statute was scrapped by the Constitutional Court, forcing many to turn towards independence.

Madrid's 'hub-and-spoke' model

Whilst the Catalan freight project was shelved, Spain continued to build high-speed railway lines from Madrid to Valencia, including a branch to Albacete - a pueblo with merely 170,000 inhabitants - as a national priority. The Madrid-bound railway was opened in 2010, causing many Catalans to condemn the central government's spending on what they considered to be low-priority projects.

Fast-forward 11 years on and Barcelona Port still does not have an operating freight connection into Europe. Instead, thousands of individual trucks must transport the loads coming from incoming shipments, clogging the roads and causing environmental damage from pollution. This is occurring at a time where Brussels wants to phase out polluting cars by 2035 and climate change is being labelled irreversible.

But whilst thousands of polluting trucks and hectares of an unused extension could be easily solved by a simple railway connection, it would also mean an unforgivable concession towards the Independentistas.

Such concessions are not only withheld from Catalonia, but from all the autonomous regions of Spain. Some compare the country's communication routes to resemble the wheel of a bicycle, with all the spokes pointing towards the centre, regardless of logistics.

Spain is the only majorly-developed country in Europe where railways, airports and ports are all controlled by the central government. In other countries they are directed by the municipality, for example Hamburg controls their port, not Munich.

The current row over the expansion of El Prat airport is only a drop in the sea of a greater political dilemma in Spain. The centralisation of power is cemented through the constitution and central courts. Pere Aragonès says that another referendum is necessary for the future prosperity of Catalonia, but that was ruled out in September talks with prime minister Pedro Sánchez by the Spanish executive.

Whilst Aragonès will continue to push for another referendum regardless, what if it doesn't come? How can Spain's politicisation of the transport infrastructure sector, which is causing damage to the environment and the country's struggling economy, be fixed?

Some may suggest that the devolution of power over communications and transport towards the regions should not be considered as a fatal concession towards the Independentistas, and would be an overdue start.

Author bio

Tom Canetti is a freelance journalist in Barcelona, focussing on corruption, conflict, macroeconomics, and political developments in Catalonia and the EU.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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