Whether the chances of reaching agreement will be used depends largely on two politicians, but both Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Catalan President Carles Puigdemont are firmly embedded in their positions, creating the prospects for trench warfare stalemate.
After five years of confrontation and months of aggressive agitation, Puigdemont fulfilled the expectations of a vocal minority and followed the referendum – considered illegal by the country’s legal system – by declaring victory for the idea of Catalan independence.
Led by the idea of buying time or something else, he then postponed the formal act of secession for some later date, expecting the central authorities to respond with readiness for dialogue. Rajoy sought a precise explanation of whether independence had been declared or not.
With the Catalan leader having ignored two deadlines set to give up the secession campaign, PM Rajoy remains decisive not to allow the emergence of a Maginot Line to divide Spain. The central government is activating a package of extraordinary measures in order to temporarily assume direct authority in Catalonia, with the intention of scheduling regional elections in January.
The suspension of autonomy is an unprecedented move in the history of Spanish democracy since the collapse of Franko’s dictatorship in 1975. Will Puigdemont respond by declaring independence, as announced in a letter to the Spanish Prime Minister?
Both leaders could learn a lot from the “Catalan autumn” that threatens to divide the country.
Puigdemont is backed by the argument that the Constitutional Court of Spain in 2010 overturned most of the provisions of the Statute of Autonomy and that Rahoy, as a sworn opponent of the independence of the region, turned a deaf ear to calls for the constitutional crisis to be resolved by negotiations, thereby “undermining” Catalonia.
The Spanish government must not miss the opportunity to talk and, after a long time, hear what the Catalonians have to say
For the Catalan leader, however, this does not justify the aggressive tactic of declaring unilateral independence: illegally from the standpoint of the Constitution, contrary not only to the will of most of the people of Spain, but also most of Catalonia. Relying on radical separatism has made a huge contribution to the crisis.
Rajoy has paragraphs behind him, but that doesn’t justify him ignoring the demands of nearly a fifth of the nation he serves as prime minister. On the day of the referendum, finding himself in a tight corner politically, he decided to deploy batons and rubber bullets to defend the constitutional order. After 900 people were wounded on the streets and two Catalan leaders were arrested, nationalist sentiment only radicalised and led to new secessionists being recruited.
After relying on repression in a country with a developed democracy, Rajoy could declare victory for the Constitution, but everything looks like a Pyrrhic victory. The European Commission received the first lawsuits against the Government of Spain, in which it is accused of violating fundamental rights and freedoms, contained in Article 2 of the European Charter, during the course of the referendum. PM Rajoy’s contribution to the crisis is also deemed as being enormous.
What now? For a start, Puigdemont would have to accept Spain’s legal system and try to change it through dialogue. Rajoy is relying on the “nuclear option” of suspending Catalonian political autonomy, which diminishes the chances of a negotiated solution.
Former British PM David Cameron had a sense for political delicacy when he promised Scots in 2014 that he would accept the outcome of their independence referendum regardless of the outcome. The Scottish people used their right, but did not secede. Rajoy should remember that. The Spanish government must not miss the opportunity to talk and, after a long time, hear what the Catalonians have to say.
The EU doesn’t want to interfere, which is an understandable stance: only the Spanish can find a stable and lasting solution to the crisis and ensure the continuation of life in peaceful cohabitation – as one or two states, as they agree. With words, and not sticks.