The Guardian view on Cata­lan in­de­pen­dence: time to talk

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion / The Guardian View - Ed­i­to­rial

The Span­ish prime min­is­ter, Mar­i­ano Ra­joy, is play­ing hard­ball with Cat­alo­nia’s bid for in­de­pen­dence. His first re­sponse to the dec­la­ra­tion by Pres­i­dent Car­les Puigde­mont that the right to in­de­pen­dence was won, but would be sus­pended in or­der to cre­ate space for “di­a­logue”, was to chal­lenge Mr Puigde­mont to clar­ify his re­gion’s sta­tus. Mr Ra­joy has made no se­cret of his readi­ness to trig­ger article 155 of the con­sti­tu­tion and sus­pend the re­gion’s au­ton­omy. Now he has flatly re­jected Mr Puigde­mont’s call for me­di­a­tion. He must take care: box­ing the Cata­lan leader into a cor­ner would be a high-risk strat­egy.

Mr Ra­joy did not even apol­o­gise (though some of his col­leagues have) for the po­lice be­hav­iour on the day of the poll, 1 Oc­to­ber, when the rest of Spain and Europe watched aghast as vot­ers were met with trun­cheons and rub­ber bul­lets. He has not budged from his re­fusal to talk, while the Cata­lan leader’s hopes rest on some in­ter­na­tional me­di­a­tion that the EU has so far re­sisted for fear of ap­pear­ing to en­dorse what Spain’s con­sti­tu­tional court has de­clared an un­law­ful vote.

Mr Puigde­mont’s de­ci­sion to pause is both tac­ti­cal and un­der­stand­able. There is no clear sce­nario for se­ces­sion, and cer­tainly no ob­vi­ous le­gal path of­fered by the 1978 con­sti­tu­tion, which pro­claims Spain’s “in­dis­sol­u­ble unity”. Busi­nesses and banks in Cat­alo­nia op­pose in­de­pen­dence. Some are al­ready mov­ing head of­fices out of the re­gion: in­de­pen­dence would cer­tainly be a recipe for eco­nomic dis­rup­tion. Mr Puigde­mont, at least in the eyes of out­siders, also lacks a ma­jor­ity for in­de­pen­dence. Al­though 90% voted for it, the turnout was only 43% (al­though the gov­ern­ment says 770,000 votes were lost in the po­lice vi­o­lence). His own sep­a­ratist coali­tion is in­creas­ingly strained.

So Mr Puigde­mont was right to hit the pause but­ton. Con­fronta­tion has been averted, for now. But Mr Ra­joy seems de­ter­mined to win a to­tal vic­tory rather than try to ne­go­ti­ate de­spite the appeal from the pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean coun­cil, Don­ald Tusk, who warned that this cri­sis can only be solved through “the force of ar­gu­ment, not the ar­gu­ment of force”. The sight, dur­ing a pro-Madrid demon­stra­tion in Barcelona on Sun­day, of the na­tional po­lice, the CNP, be­ing greeted as the al­lies of the pro­test­ers, rather than neu­tral guardians of law and or­der, should be a warn­ing of how quickly di­vi­sions can be­come en­trenched. The smart move now would be to lower the tem­per­a­ture: that means both sides mak­ing con­ces­sions.

Mr Puigde­mont says that in­de­pen­dence is in abeyance. So Mr Ra­joy could sig­nal a move to­wards greater fed­er­al­ism that would take the edge off the an­tag­o­nism. At all costs, he must re­sist pres­sure to im­ple­ment article 155. Any at­tempt at di­rect rule from Madrid would risk pre­cip­i­tat­ing the sit­u­a­tion from a con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis into a catas­tro­phe. There may be a model in Madrid’s re­la­tion­ship with the Basque coun­try, which en­joys greater au­ton­omy, for ex­am­ple be­ing able to raise taxes. More sym­bolic changes, such as an of­fi­cial ac­cep­tance of Cat­alo­nia as a “na­tion” within Spain might win hearts and help pro­tect ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity.

The events of the past weeks should be a warn­ing of how quickly and eas­ily mat­ters can slip out of con­trol. Nei­ther side ap­pears to have had a plan B. Each has staked their per­sonal po­lit­i­cal prospects on con­flict over ne­go­ti­a­tion. If they truly hold their cit­i­zens’ in­ter­ests at heart, they ur­gently need to seek com­mon ground, not more di­vi­sions.

Spain has been an ex­tra­or­di­nary suc­cess story for more than four decades. It has emerged from the long shadow of the Franco years as a modern Euro­pean democ­racy. Cat­alo­nia has been an im­por­tant part of that demo­cratic tri­umph, and Spain has be­come a vi­tal mem­ber of the EU. Yet his­tory casts a long shadow. There are ghosts from that era which have not been en­tirely laid to rest. Barcelona and Madrid alike must take care not to let them­selves be im­pris­oned by them.

Cata­lans in Barcelona re­act to their pres­i­dent’s dec­la­ra­tion of the right to in­de­pen­dence on 10 Oc­to­ber 2017. ‘Mr Puigde­mont’s de­ci­sion to pause is both tac­ti­cal and un­der­stand­able.’ Pho­to­graph: via Zuma Wire/Rex/Shut­ter­stock

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