His first act was to fly to Berlin for talks with Mr Puigdemont, who is fighting extradition from Germany on charges relating to the October events that range from rebellion to misuse of public funds. Mr Torra repeatedly stressed the “exceptional and provisional nature” of his mandate and that Mr Puigdemont remains Catalonia’s “legitimate president”. He said his priority would be to “build the republic” and “elaborate a draft constitution” for Catalonia. He also called for unconditional talks with Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s conservative prime minister. That was cautiously accepted by Mr Rajoy.
But a meeting of minds is not close. Over the past two years the only thing the Catalan separatists have wanted to talk about is a referendum on independence. Their other priority now is the freeing of nine political leaders jailed pending trial for flouting the constitution in the independence drive. Mr Rajoy cannot grant either wish, legally or politically. Instead the government is prepared to talk about the Catalan administration’s financial and other lesser grievances.
Many in Madrid will mistrust Mr Torra’s government as long as Mr Puigdemont, who precipitated Spain’s deepest constitutional crisis since the return of democracy in 1978, is seen to be pulling the strings. Albert Rivera, the leader of Ciudadanos, a liberal party that leads in many opinion polls, called on the government not to lift Article 155, the constitutional clause under which Mr Rajoy dissolved Mr Puigdemont’s government last autumn and called a Catalan election. Held in December, this saw the separatists retain a narrow majority of seats in the regional parliament, though they won only 48% of the popular vote.
In fact, direct rule automatically lapses as soon as Mr Torra’s government takes office, probably within days. But Mr Rajoy warned the separatists that Article 155, never previously used, is now “a precedent and a procedure” and that “if necessary” it will be reimposed on Catalonia. For that he has the backing of Pedro Sánchez, the opposition Socialists’ leader, as well as Mr Rivera. Government sources have said that they may still exercise control over the finances of the Catalan administration.
Mr Torra must walk a fine line. The separatist project foundered last autumn when confronted with harsh reality. Independence has never enjoyed majority support in the opinion polls. No European government wants to see the precedent of a national schism. Businesses took fright, with more than 3,000 companies moving their legal domicile outside Catalonia.
These setbacks, and the jailings, prompted divisions in the separatist camp. Mr Puigdemont, from his voluntary exile, wants to keep up the pressure on Mr Rajoy. He three times proposed candidates for president whose investiture was thwarted because they were in jail or abroad. His main coalition partner, Esquerra Republicana (Republican Left), tired of such theatrics and called for an “effective government”. While appearing not to renounce unilateral action, in practice Mr Torra may seek to remain within the law.
The separatists’ main strategy remains to try to mobilise Catalans and international opinion. They have scored some victories, mainly because of the heavy-handed approach of Spain’s Supreme Court to Catalan disobedience. The German court considering Mr Puigdemont’s extradition has so far cast doubt on the case. Spain has since filed further evidence.
Mr Torra’s appointment may sap sympathy for the separatists abroad. They have always presented their movement as open and progressive. A former insurance executive and publisher, Mr Torra comes from the right wing of Catalan nationalism. He has shown enthusiasm for Estat Català, a quasi-fascist outfit in the 1930s. He has also expressed a visceral hatred of Spaniards. In 2012 he wrote that those who live in Catalonia but do not embrace its culture were “carrion-eaters, scorpions, hyenas, wild beasts in human form”. This week he apologised for these and other statements. Still, they are a propaganda gift to the opponents of nationalism.
How long Mr Torra’s government may last and to what extent he will be his own man is unclear. Mr Puigdemont has suggested a fresh election in December. What is clearer is that Catalan society remains split down the middle.