Time for a Catalan reality check


Some have criticized the Spanish government for its unbending attitude to the Catalan independence movement but at least its approach to this dangerous and difficult problem has had the virtue of consistency.

There were those who that argued that Spanish premier Mariano Rajoy should have sought to negotiate with the Catalan separatist Carles Puigdemont after the referendum which the then leader of the regional Catalan government decided to call. But the Spanish cabinet in Madrid stuck to its line that the vote was illegal. It sent in federal police to seize ballot papers and confront pro-independence demonstrators. Confrontations were filmed not just by journalists present but by scores of demonstrators who broadcast on social media footage taken on their mobile phones.

From that evidence there was little doubt that the federal police over-reacted and were guilty of assaults. As yet, it is unclear if any of the policemen are likely to face prosecution.

However in one respect, the hardline behavior of law enforcement officers underpinned the determination of Rajoy to enforce the law and the 1978 Constitution. This document insists that the Spanish state cannot be dissolved. Nevertheless, it acknowledges the existence of what it calls the country’s “historic nationalities”, the Galicians, Basques and Catalans, each of which has its own language and culture. These communities were granted autonomous regional parliaments, which allowed them to manage their local affairs while the government in Madrid kept hold principally of defense, security and foreign relations. It is often forgotten that Spain’s Canary and Balearic Islands also have their own autonomous assemblies.

In the wake of Catalonia’s failed constitutional coup via the illegal referendum, the Rajoy government called fresh regional elections. Catalan nationalist parties last week won a narrow majority. The separatists celebrated the victory as an endorsement of their referendum result. But they chose to ignore the hard reality that they had pulled out all the stops to mobilize Catalan independence supporters, arguing that Madrid could not ignore a huge majority in an election that it had itself called. In the event, despite their extreme efforts, the majority was far from overwhelming and demonstrates that the population living in the region is pretty well evenly split.

Afterwards, Prime Minister Rajoy stuck with the constitutional script and had the wisdom to congratulate the winners, with no sign that he was doing so through gritted teeth. In his address to the nation, King Felipe VI sounded a little tougher, warning Catalonia’s newly-elected legislators that they had to respect the plurality of their region and also bear in mind their responsibility “for the common good” by which he obviously meant the rest of Spain.

Catalan leaders clearly need to draw back from the confrontation with Madrid. They have a mandate to govern. But they have nothing that could remotely be presented as a mandate to continue their fight for independence. They must defuse this crisis. They must rein in hotheads and in particular they must avoid the return of the Terra Lliure terrorists who disbanded in 1995 after a 17-year campaign, which though a shadow of the Basque terrorists gangs of ETA, nevertheless brought death and destruction to Catalonia.