Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s reaction to Catalonia’s independence referendum was as foolish as the vote was reckless. Catalan officials should never have scheduled the vote – but once they did, Spanish officials should not have tried to stop it. Resolving this conflict just got harder.
Rajoy has tried to portray the referendum, in which Catalan authorities say 42 percent of Catalans voted about nine to one for independence, purely as a matter of law enforcement: Spain’s constitutional court had declared it illegal, so he deployed police to try to stop the vote from going forward – arresting politicians, beating voters, seizing ballot boxes.
The violence that broke out was shocking to see in western Europe; Iraqi Kurdistan’s recent independence referendum was more peaceful.
A seditionist challenge to an elected national government cannot be taken lightly, and the Catalan independence movement’s blithe disregard for the rule of law is inexcusable. At the same time, it’s important to remember that the separatists are a vocal minority in one of Spain’s most economically important regions. Rajoy’s goal should be to address issues important to all Catalans, most of whom oppose independence (or at least did before Sunday’s vote).
Finding a way to defuse the tensions won’t be easy. Reopening the 1978 constitutional settlement that led to the current autonomy arrangements won’t necessarily help, since Spain has already devolved so many powers to the regions. And a formal suspension of Catalan autonomy, as some in Madrid have suggested, would only inflame tensions further and drive more voters toward separatist parties in the next regional elections.
What Spain needs is a more responsive national government, not necessarily a weaker one. It’s in the interest not only of Rajoy’s minority government, but also of Spain’s national parties, to find ways to celebrate the country’s pluralism while also reinforcing a sense of common purpose. Those aren’t quick fixes. A more efficient and less corrupt government, and more attention to building political consensus, would help break down parochialism over time.
Whether Sunday’s violence represents a point of no return for Catalonia’s independence bid is unclear. But it has significantly increased tensions and left two sides deeply entrenched. Stuck in the middle is a large majority of Spaniards – including most Catalans themselves. Sparing Spain from major political and economic upheaval will require tolerance, patience and no small amount of political skill.