Earlier this week, the words "Go home Pedro" were sprayed in English on the outside of the Casa Llotja de Mar building in central Barcelona and a Catalan independence flag was daubed underneath.
On Friday, Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez is due to gather his ministers there, the first time in the democratic era that the central government will hold a cabinet meeting in the city. The presence of the Spanish government in the Catalan capital was supposed to reflect their determination to engage with the region, with Sánchez expected to announce several progressive economic and social measures.
But, as the graffiti suggests, Sánchez is far from welcome and his trip comes amid renewed turmoil surrounding the Catalan issue. The regional government's spokeswoman, Elsa Artadi, said the chosen date was a "provocation", being the first anniversary of the Catalan election held last year, which was called by the Spanish government after introducing direct rule in the region.
Many pro-independence Catalans, meanwhile, take a similar view, regarding the visit more as an invasion than a charm offensive.
A series of protests are being organised for the day, including a two-hour strike at midday and a large demonstration in central Barcelona. There are reports that activists, who have frequently blocked roads and rail links in recent months, will attempt to cause major disruption.
“In Barcelona, this Friday 21st, the weather forecast is for a perfect storm,” noted journalist and commentator Rosa María Artal. “The disagreements and pain of the last year will all come to a head.”
Whether or not the day lives up to the hype, it is likely to ensure that Spain’s territorial crisis ends the year on a dramatic note. It will also show how misplaced Sánchez’s confidence was when, on taking office in June, he declared his hopes of improving the frayed relationship between Madrid and Catalonia.
Back then, seven months of direct rule exerted by Madrid on Catalonia had just come to an end, allowing the inexperienced Quim Torra to become regional president. Sánchez's government immediately set about restoring a bilateral working commission between the central government and Catalonia which had been dormant for seven years. The prime minister also met with Torra and the interior ministry allowed jailed Catalan politicians, who were awaiting trial for their role in last year's outlawed independence referendum, to be moved from prisons in Madrid to ones in the northeastern region.
In the summer, Meritxell Batet, minister for territorial policy, told The Irish Times: "If there is political will and we can restore mutual respect, then there is still enough time and a political approach will stand a chance."
But the arrival of a new, relatively moderate, central government appears to have wrong-footed the Catalan administration, which has swung between advocating dialogue and a more confrontational stance. In August, for example, Torra called on Catalans to “attack” the Spanish state and last week he hailed the Slovenian route to independence, in which violence claimed several dozen lives. Under his erratic leadership the independence movement has appeared increasingly divided and its strategy unclear.
Meanwhile, unionist parties on the right have hardened their positions, feeding off the Catalan government’s more radical outbursts.
The conservative Popular Party (PP) is now in opposition under Pablo Casado, a more proactive figure than his predecessor, Mariano Rajoy. The PP and the other main force on the right, Ciudadanos, often appear to be vying to prove their credentials as the pre-eminent enemy of the Catalan independence movement.
Both parties have cast Sánchez as weak in his handling of the territorial issue, claiming he panders to the pro-independence parties, whose parliamentary support he required in order to take office. The PP and Ciudadanos also frequently urge him to reintroduce direct rule in Catalonia, a call Sánchez has so far resisted.
“Torra wants bloodshed and a civil war,” Casado said on Wednesday as he once again berated the government for failing to take tougher action against what he calls the “coup-mongers”.
Writer Jordi Amat noted that although the independence movement has acted peacefully so far, the PP and Ciudadanos are determined to portray it otherwise and would see violent incidents on Friday as vindication of their uncompromising positions.
“Paradoxically, the ones who are rubbing their hands hoping for unrest are those who are praying for their prophecy to come true about a violence which so far has been non-existent,” he wrote.
The status of the nine jailed independence leaders, four of whom staged a hunger strike that ended on Thursday, has further charged the atmosphere.
On Thursday night, Sánchez and Torra took part in a hastily arranged summit in Barcelona. However, with the Spanish leader unwilling to discuss the possibility of a negotiated independence referendum or the situation of the prisoners, the meeting was not expected to lead to any kind of breakthrough.
On Friday, the actions of the Catalan regional police will be watched closely. The Spanish government has expressed concern at their failure to control recent unrest and has called on the Catalan authorities, who supervise the force, to ensure that the police maintain order and do not let demonstrators disrupt transport links.
However, the day could end up having a broader significance. If the Spanish government’s visit to Barcelona descends into chaos, it could spell another low point in relations between Madrid and Catalonia. With Sánchez relying on pro-independence parties for the approval of his 2019 budget in the Spanish parliament, this historic cabinet meeting could mark the beginning of the end of the legislature.