Talk it over
There is still an opportunity for Madrid and Barcelona to pull back from a confrontation
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont’s call for a dialogue with the federal government is the first sign in many months of an attempt to break the stalemate in Spain’s continuing crisis. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who has remained steadfast in his defence of Spanish sovereignty and integrity, should seize the opening, slight though it is. In his address to the regional parliament in Barcelona on Tuesday, Mr. Puigdemont insisted that he would act on the popular mandate for a declaration of independence in the October 1 referendum. But he also expressed a willingness, not necessarily shared by allies in the ruling coalition, to defer such a proclamation so as to negotiate with the Spanish government and to explore international mediation. There are conflicting interpretations on the essence of that address. But Mr. Rajoy seems to be in no mood whatsoever to relent. He has said that he wants to ascertain whether Mr. Puigdemont’s speech amounts to a declaration of independence before Madrid triggers Article 155 to exercise direct control over Catalonia. While it is an option he has been weighing for some months, this obduracy is hard to understand in today’s altered circumstances. The centre-right government’s refusal to engage the Catalan leadership in any dialogue may have had a context prior to the referendum. There was sound legal basis to its insistence that the question of secession was outside the framework of the Spanish constitution, as vindicated by the country’s highest court. But the fact is that Madrid failed to convince Catalan leaders to abandon the vote; in fact, the vote held on October 1 brought the Spanish government widespread condemnation for the violent incidents of the day.
This grim backdrop should trigger fresh thinking on Mr. Rajoy’s overall approach. A plain refusal to talk to the separatists is politically untenable when the other side seems inclined to push back on the declaration of independence. The attempt instead should be to impress upon his interlocutors in Catalonia that a sizeable proportion of the population was opposed to secession. In fact, Madrid should weigh the larger ramifications of rolling back Catalonia’s regional autonomy at a time when passions are running high. What is needed most of all currently is calmer rhetoric. Mr. Rajoy needs to steer the public debate more constructively to how regional aspirations could be met without precipitating a bigger crisis. Whether the European Union could influence the course of events is at best a matter for speculation. But a more interventionist posture cannot be ruled out, should there be an unfortunate relapse to the violence of recent days. Mr. Rajoy should draw upon his decades-long political experience, and the backing he enjoys of the opposition socialists, to fashion an appropriate response to Mr. Puigdemont’s overtures.