Spain’s leader to meet Trump — but the timing might deepen the Catalonia crisis

Key Points
  • Growing division ahead of referendum on Catalonia's independence due Sunday
  • Possibility Trump might comment on the situation in Catalonia
  • Rajoy and Trump will likely promise to further coordinate the fight against terrorism
MIGUEL RIOPA | AFP | Getty Images

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy is due to meet U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington D.C. Tuesday, leaving behind a growing dispute in the streets of Catalonia.

Rajoy arrived in the United States Monday for a visit aimed at deepening ties with a country that is "a friend and an ally" of Spain.

However, the timing might not be the best given the growing division between Spaniards ahead of a referendum on Catalonia's independence due Sunday.

"There's a feeling among the Spanish public that President Trump is averse to Latinos and the Spanish language," Charles Powell, director for the Elcano Institute, a think-tank based in Madrid, told CNBC over the phone.

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Shortly after taking office, Trump ordered to take down the Spanish-language version of the White House website. Trump has also vowed to build a wall in the Mexican border – something that Spaniards seem to disapprove of.

Data collected from the Pew Research Center last July showed that Trump's approval ratings in Spain are quite low, and similar to those given to former President George W. Bush when he left office.

The latter had been seriously criticized for his foreign policy decisions, including the war in Iraq. By contrast, Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, was very popular among Spaniards.

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According to Powell, during their joint-press conference, Rajoy and Trump will likely promise to further coordinate the fight against terrorism and there's the possibility that Trump might comment on the situation in Catalonia.

The Spanish region aims to carry out an independence referendum Sunday, but the national government believes that this goes against the constitution and it is therefore illegal. The issue is not new with Catalonia calling for a clear break from the rest of Spain since 2012.

"So far, Rajoy's strategy of fully relying on legal means to stop the vote seems to be working, with the Catalan police collaborating with national police forces in their actions against the referendum," Antonio Barroso, deputy director of research at Teneo Intelligence said in a note last week.

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"These include the seizure of pro-independence campaign materials, ballot papers and most of the legal notifications about the referendum that the Catalan government was planning to send to voters."

Despite doubts over whether the regional government will manage to conduct the referendum, the Spanish government's strategy aims to make independents more united.

"A more untied pro-independence movement increases the risk of an upgraded secessionist challenge. This could take different forms, which go from a unilateral declaration of independence to adopting further steps to 'disconnect' Catalonia's legal order from Spain's," Barroso added.

The Catalonian issue isn't restricted to the region alone. Other Spanish areas, including the Basque country, have voiced their wish for independence from Madrid and are certainly monitoring Rajoy's reaction to the Catalonian movement.